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The Making of Medicine

An ‘Unrecognized Crisis’ Among Coal Miners

Our Drew Harris, MD, serves as the medical director of the Black Lung Clinic at Southwest Virginia’s Stone Mountain Health Services, the only federally funded black lung clinic in Virginia. Black lung is a terrible condition that affects coal miners -- coal dust literally coats the inside of their lungs, leaving them struggling to breathe. It can also take a terrible toll on their mental health, Dr. Harris has found.

In a new study, Dr. Harris and his colleagues found that more than a third of miners and former miners reported struggling with depression, and more than one in 10 recently considered suicide.

Dr. Harris' study reviewed data collected from patients at the Black Lung Clinic since 2018. It is believed to be the first to examine mental-health issues in a large population of coal miners in the United States.

Troubled by what they found, Dr. Harris and his colleagues are calling for more mental health resources and treatment for miners and former miners. They're also urging further study of potential contributors to the problem, including social determinants of health, substance use and workplace safety.

“Although coal mining is on the decline, the rates of black lung in Southwest Virginia continue to increase. Coal miners in Central Appalachia face disparities in health related to a range of complex social, economic, occupational and behavioral factors,” Dr. Harris said. “This study highlights the unrecognized crisis of mental illness in miners that warrants urgent attention, resources and expanded care.”

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