Mountaintop Removal Has Real Mental Health Effects

Solastalgia

OBJECTIVE:

Solastalgia is a new concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress. As opposed to nostalgia–the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home–solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. The paper will focus on two contexts where collaborative research teams have found solastalgia to be evident: the experiences of persistent drought in rural NSW and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.

METHODS:

Qualitative (interviews and focus groups) and quantitative (community-based surveys) research has been conducted on the lived experience of drought and mining, and the findings relevant to solastalgia are presented.

RESULTS:

The authors are exploring the potential uses and applications of the concept of solastalgia for understanding the psychological impact of the increasing incidence of environmental change worldwide.

CONCLUSIONS:

Worldwide, there is an increase in ecosystem distress syndromes matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes. The specific role played by global-scale environmental challenges to ‘sense of place’ and identity will be explored in the future development of the concept of solastalgia.

Mountaintop removal is a horrifically destructive form of mining used across Appalachia to access valuable coal seams buried deep beneath the surface of its majestic slopes.

Ample research demonstrates that the extraction process has profound environmental effects– it clogs streams, destroys habitat, and reduces biodiversity. Mountaintop removal also has significant health implications including increased risk of asthma, cancer, kidney disease, and reproductive health problems.

Now research is uncovering yet another problem for residents of regions that are being ravaged by mountaintop removal: solastalgia.

The condition is a form of anxiety and depression brought about in response to environmental changes. Thanks to climate change, the phenomenon is showing up in more and more places around the world. But what makes solastagia especially alarming in Appalachia is its connection to the entirely human-controlled process of mountaintop removal.

A recent study found that 17 percent of Appalachians living in mining counties experience symptoms of depression, in contrast with 10 percent of residents in other counties. Even after controlling for contributing factors like socioeconomic class, access to education, and other known influences on mental health, these numbers remain surprisingly constant.

Mountaintop removal, in a sense, breaks minds as well as mountains by creating environmental stress and a sense of loss among people who identify deeply with their landscape. A separate study confirmed these findings, noting that proximity to mountaintop removal sites had an adverse effect on mental health.

These disparities are quite significant, for two closely interrelated reasons.

First, residents of Appalachia already tend to experience mental health conditions and substance abuse at a high rate. Some of this is closely linked with poverty, a stressor that often exacerbates underlying mental health issues or risk factors for addiction.

People in poverty might turn to alcohol and drugs for self-medication and a form of escape, for example, while those who are already at risk for depression and anxiety will likely suffer more when their living conditions are extremely stressful. Poverty also impacts everything from nutrition to education, all of which can have a profound effect on physical and mental health, even on an intergenerational level: Poverty can actually change your genes, passing a legacy on to the next generation.

Another contributing factor of equally grave concern is the lack of access to comprehensive mental health services in the region. Poverty, stigma, and the rural nature of Appalachian communities makes it difficult to deliver reliable mental health services. When people with symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse can’t easily receive counseling and treatment, a ripple effect can result.

Low-income communities struggling to survive are not well-positioned for self-advocacy, so they find it difficult to speak up when it comes to discussions about allocating health funds. Many regions lack even basic clinics for physical health care, let alone mental health services, exacerbating profound social disparities.

When ecologists discuss the human impacts of mountaintop removal, they usually consider the subject in a physical health context. But the recent evidence of solastalgia in Appalachia provides a strong incentive to explore the mental health implications of climate change and unsafe environmental practices.

We could certainly stand to learn more about how extractive activities like fracking affect the mental health of surrounding communities. Such information is critical for providing immediate support to people in need. It should also be treated as part of the growing body of evidence supporting the ban of destructive environmental practices. New data will likely show that the harmful effects of resource extraction are much bigger than previously understood.

Appalachian people at risk of losing their homes and sense of place experience the devastation of mountaintop removal on a spectrum of physical and mental levels.  Solastalgia is a term that’s likely to arise more and more in the coming years as researchers learn more about how human emotions interact with the landscape. It’s also a reminder that environmentalists should consider mental health in their advocacy work, particularly as the nascent field of ecopsychology gains its footing.

As we’ve seen here, that feeling of happiness associated with a sunny day in a beautiful place has a dark counterpart.

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