New study examines mountaintop removal’s potential impact on mental health in Appalachia communities

October 22, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

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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.

 

7 Responses to “New study examines mountaintop removal’s potential impact on mental health in Appalachia communities”

  1. bo webb says:

    Once again; there is a bill in Congress that addresses the myriad of health disparities in mountaintop removal communities, specific. It is an eloquent bill which provides a balanced and common sense approach to determining the exact cause of these health problems and offers resolution without shutting down existing MTR operations. It is HR 526 The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (The ACHE Act). It would be great to see an in depth look at the bill by this and other news organizations across our state. Ken did a piece on it when it was first introduced, but in light of more and more health data becoming available it would be good to bring it forth once again. We need to know where our representatives stand on the ACHE Act and why they continue to refuse to acknowledge the peer reviewed health research.

  2. Paul Hormick says:

    To keep their study in the proper scientific controls, Dr. Hendryx and Innes-Wimsatt statistically controlled for income, education, and other indicators associated with depression.

    Mountaintop removal is associated with depressed incomes, and where you find MTR you find increased rates of poverty. Depressed incomes and poverty increases feelings of depression.

    Hendryx is correct, that mountaintop mining leads directly to depression because of solastalgia. But because this study controlled for income, something negatively impacted by mountaintop mining, these two researchers may have actually underestimated the amount of mental distress caused by mountaintop mining.

  3. Lynne says:

    The focus of this inquiry is on the impact of mountain top removal on the mental health and social well-being of people who live in the area. May I add that the devastation caused by the massive coal fly ash spill in East Tennessee (December, 2008) also had an impact on people that we still wrestle with today. The cleanup is going very well and when recovery is complete (2015), the beauty of the site will take your breath away. Nonetheless, this experience is hurtful, and it will not soon be forgotten. Intuitively, the term “solastalgia” seems valid and useful in my view. The researchers are trying to build a construct based on something more than intuition….this, too, seems valid and useful in my view.

    This reminds me of the Trail of Tears.

  4. Tom says:

    There are certain characteristics which must be met to diagnose clinical depression, as opposed to just feeling “blue.” First, does the feeling interfere with most resident’s ability to function normally? I personally doubt it in this case.

  5. Lynne says:

    Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. People who lived along the rivers were directly affected by the coal fly ash spill. About 150 families were permanently relocated. These folks lost their land, their homes, and their dreams. This change alone affected them deeply. We’re in the 5th year of cleanup so most people have “moved on” now. Our situation is more complicated because we live downstream from Oak Ridge and our waterways have legacy contaminants (PCBs, mercury, and cesium), too. From the article….”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.” Ask us how we cope!

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Everyone,

    For all those who are commenting by making sweeping generalizations about depression and emotional/mental health, please make note of once of Coal Tattoo’s main rules for this comments section:

    “Please provide links or citations to published material to back up your views, when appropriate.”
    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/comment-policy/

    A couple of examples of such statements that need some attribution:

    “There are certain characteristics which must be met to diagnose clinical depression, as opposed to just feeling “blue.” First, does the feeling interfere with most resident’s ability to function normally? I personally doubt it in this case.”

    and

    “Mountaintop removal is associated with depressed incomes, and where you find MTR you find increased rates of poverty. Depressed incomes and poverty increases feelings of depression.”

    If folks would click through and read the study, for example, it’s clear that the questions asked of participants in the project were not limited to whether one does or does not fell “blue.”

    Participants were asked, for example, if they had trouble concentrating, if they had a poor appetite and if they were fidgety or restless.

    And gosh, folks, it’s simply not credible to dismiss a published paper because, well, I “personally doubt” the conclusions.

    If you want to challenge the methods, then state specifically what was wrong with them, and provide some citation to professional literature that supports your statement. If you want to argue that the results aren’t accurate, then provide evidence of similar research that has reached contrary conclusions.

    And for the record, Dr. Hendryx has three degrees in psychology — a B.A., an M.S. and a PhD.

    Ken.

  7. Bo Webb says:

    A good number of peer reviewed research papers and references on this subject can be viewed here: http://acheact.org/a-c-h-e-science/

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