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Mental illness an ‘unrecognized crisis’ among miners with black lung, study shows

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Charlottesville, VA — Coal miners with black lung disease commonly face various mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide, results of a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Virginia show.

The researchers examined data from more than 2,800 coal miners who were evaluated for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder through a voluntary survey at Stone Mountain Health Services, a black lung clinic in Jonesville, VA. The average age of the participants – an overwhelming majority of whom were white males – was 66.

More than 1 out of 3 participants reported symptoms consistent with a major depressive disorder (37.4%) or had clinically significant anxiety (38.9%). Additionally, 26.2% exhibited symptoms of PTSD and 11.4% had considered suicide in the past year. The percentage of suicidal thoughts among all men in Virginia is 2.9.

The researchers note that the percentage “of mental illness far exceeded those documented in coal mining populations internationally.” Miners who need supplemental oxygen to assist with breathing showed accelerated rates of suicidal thoughts (15.9%), anxiety (47.7%) and depression (48.5%).

“This study highlights the unrecognized crisis of mental illness in miners that warrants urgent attention, resources and expanded care,” Drew Harris, lead study author and pulmonary medicine expert at UVA Health, said in a press release, adding that the percentage of “mental illness identified in this large population of U.S. coal miners is shocking. Improved screening and treatment of mental illness in this population is an urgent, unmet need that warrants urgent action.”

Also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, black lung is a deadly but preventable condition. Rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years, says NIOSH, which adds that symptoms may include coughing, excessive phlegm, shortness of breath, labored breathing and chest tightness.

 

The agency provides free, confidential health screenings through its Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program.

The study was published online May 25 in JAMA Network Open.

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