June Leffler Published

Study: Black Lung Patients Face Higher Rates of Depression, PTSD

The losses that come with age-related macular degeneration can make depression more likely.

Many men who suffer from black lung disease also face depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, according to a study out of the University of Virginia. The study was published earlier this year in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers found that many patients reported symptoms of mental illness on their health assessments. Of those that entered one Virginia clinic since 2018, a third showed signs of depression and anxiety, a quarter experienced symptoms of PTSD, and one out of ten patients have considered suicide.

Patients with more severe black lung disease experienced these mental stressors at higher rates. The study looked at patients at a black lung clinic in Jonesville, Virginia. The town sits near the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. Almost all patients were white men in their sixties and early seventies.

Dr. Drew Harris works at the clinic and authored the study, one of the first to examine the overall issue of mental illness among miners. He can’t say exactly why coal miners may experience more mental distress, but he understands the job comes with many traumatic occupational hazards.

For example, Harris said many of his patients have witnessed walls of mines collapsing.

“Even with the best of safety precautions and roof bolting, there are times when rocks will fall on top of people,” Harris said.

Studies show people with other lung problems also have higher rates of depression.

“When you feel short of breath, it makes most patients feel anxious,” Harris said.

Harris also said current and former coal miners have a host of socioeconomic factors that could cause mental distress. With the decline of the industry, coal mining communities face more poverty and a lack of resources, including mental health care. He would like to see more primary care doctors screen for mental health amongst current and retired coal miners, and even have peer mental health workers to help clients who may be more reluctant to get help.

“This paper doesn’t really do anything to help anyone. The more important step two is to do something about it,” Harris said.