New study examines mountaintop removal’s potential impact on mental health in Appalachia communities
10/25/2013 - The Charleston Gazette. By Ken Ward, Jr.
CHARLESTON - There’s a new study out about mountaintop removal coal mining. It’s in a journal called Ecopsychology and looks at mountaintop removal’s potential impacts on mental and emotional health of the people of our region. It was published online late last month.
The paper is by Michael Hendryx, formerly of West Virginia University and now with the University of Indiana and WVU’s Kestrel A. Innes-Wimsatt. It’s called Increased Risk of Depression for People Living in Coal Mining Areas of Central Appalachia. Here’s the abstract:
This study examines the relationship between depression symptoms and living in areas where mountaintop removal coal mining is practiced. Data were analyzed from a survey of 8,591 adults residing in Central Appalachian areas both with and without coal mining. The survey included a validated measure of depression severity. Results showed that diagnosable levels of major depression were present in almost 17% of respondents in mountaintop removal mining areas, compared to 10% of residents in non-mining areas. This disparity was partly attributable to socioeconomic disadvantage, but after statistical control for income, education, and other risks, depression risk for residents in the mountaintop removal area remained significantly elevated (odds ratio = 1.40, 95% confidence interval 1.15–1.71). This study contributes to the empirical evidence in support of the concept of solastalgia and indicates that persons who experience environmental degradation from mountaintop removal coal mining are at elevated risk for depression.
This study comes about a year after another paper by researchers from Radford University. It was in the same journal and was called The Effects of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining on Mental Health, Well-Being, and Community Health in Central Appalachia. Here’s the abstract
Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining frequently utilized in Central Appalachia. MTR is exactly what the name suggests; mountaintops are removed to expose coal seams for cheap extraction. The harmful environmental implications of this form of mining are well documented. Research also shows that MTR has detrimental effects on human health and on the functioning of local communities. Although virtually no research has been undertaken on the psychological effects of MTR, reports of people living close to MTR sites along with research on similar environmental problems suggest a high probability of an increased risk of mental health problems for those living near MTR sites. Solastalgia due to drastic environmental changes, eco-anxiety, and stress resulting from the dangerous and noxious aspects of MTR are likely among the most significant contributors to this increased risk of mental health problems. High rates of unemployment and poverty and lower rates of educational attainment persist in Central Appalachia despite significant gains in other areas of Appalachia. These pre-existing socioeconomic problems compound the stressors created by MTR.
As the older paper explains:
Solastalgia is a term coined to describe this placebased distress engendered by unwelcome environmental change. Solastalgia is a psychoterratic mental health issue; that is, it is an earth-related mental health problem stemming from negatively perceived and felt environmental change. Solastalgia is especially distressing for those who directly witness the destruction of their home environment and who feel intimately connected to the place in which they are rooted.
In an area already plagued by socioeconomic inequalities, research on the extent of mental health and community problems is urgently needed to complement growing bodies of research on the health and environmental costs of MTR. Attention should be given to the prevention and amelioration of the psychological costs of MTR for people in Central Appalachia. The well-being of Central Appalachians is not a justifiable sacrifice for cheap energy and high corporate profits.
As he did with the issue of mountaintop removal’s potential impacts on other public health issues in Appalachia, Dr. Hendryx stepped in on the mental health matter to try to begin filling a void with this important research. His new paper explains:
The people of Appalachia have a strong sense of place, and MTR is antithetical to this sense. MTR deforests and destroys mountains within sight and sound of communities where families have lived for generations. Cemeteries have been surrounded or damaged, and entire communities have even been destroyed. In addition, jobs are in decline as machinery replaces labor, as coal reserves dwindle, and as other energy sources such as natural gas outperform coal in the marketplace. Social capital in the region has been depleted as a consequence of depopulation and the struggles between union workers and the coal industry. The prospects for alternative economic development remain largely unexplored and undeveloped as political and corporate interests disregard citizen concerns and cling to old ways. As a result, citizens are left disenfranchised, with little hope for economic advancement, while their surrounding environment, to which they have a profound attachment, is permanently defaced.