Lack Of Intellectual Stimulation A Chronic Problem, But Life Is Good For Psychologists In Appalachia

By Henry Saeman, Editor
September 1, 2000 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Pikeville, KY--No one promised heaven to live here and practice psychology in Kentucky or West Virginia.

But the psychologists who persevere in the coal mining regions of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia assert they are comfortable and content. They claim to be here to stay. Some were reared in this region and returned to this rural, less hectic lifestyle after graduate school.

Almost uniformly, this collection of psychologists complain about social and professional isolation and lack of intellectual stimulation. In one form or another, it is on everyone’s mind.

The National Psychologist visited several psychologists in Pikeville, KY and Williamson, WVA, areas where coal was king during the first half of the 20th century, but where the mines now play a far less controlling role in life.

The city of Pikeville, population 6,500, brims with activity. A fairly clean community, it nonetheless bears the marks of urban sprawl with its plethora of fast food restaurants, gas stations, WalMart and Lowe’s. A four-lane highway connects Pikeville to the world.

The town shows an infusion of state and federal dollars, including a newly-built osteopathic college and Pikeville Community College. Gov. Paul Patton, Kentucky’s current governor and former coal mine owner, is credited with directing some of the largess to his home district. Appalachia has long complained that the state had directed its major dollars to Louisville and Lexington.

Today’s Pikeville doesn’t look or feel like the heart of Appalachia. “This is ‘impoverished’? a visitor asks.

But in the hollows across the mountains of Pikeville and hidden from view, abject poverty is endemic. Middle class homes mix with dirt roads, trailers and ramshackle houses that evince poverty.

The railroad and coal mining created a period of boom here in the early 20th century. It also established family roots and these strong family ties persevered over generations.

The essence of that earlier life remains. Since life in the hollows is tranquil and untroubled, many of its residents continue living there.

But for many, the modern world has eluded them. Some are said to have never moved beyond their house or trailer, seeking no jobs, living off welfare checks, never having flown on an airplane or traveled outside their county.

Their lives are not desperate. People in the hollows may have telephones and they can call ‘911’ although it only came to Williamson, WVA this year. Most people do have color television. They rely on relatives to transport them to hospitals in emergencies. However, many don’t work, and haven’t worked for a long time. They don’t feel the need, and their hostility toward government and coal mine owners dates back generations. Thus, they make their welfare checks suffice. Their neighbors’ lives of abundance across the mountains is meaningless to them.

They are proud people, said Kathy Cantrell at the Pikeville library. Many believe that they were forced to live harsh lives in the coal mines, suffering black lung and other diseases, while wealthy coal mine owners took advantage.

Cantrell asserts that mental health is thoroughly stigmatized. “Many feel it’s for crazy people so they try to avoid it.”

The dichotomy between rich and poor is, perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere. Coal mine owners ruled and grew rich, according to local chroniclers, while the workers endured harsh conditions in the mines. Although well-paid, many lived in substandard conditions, suffered through layoffs and illness, particularly black lung disease.

Only a few miles across the mountain in nearby Pikeville lies a different world, bolstered by the conveniences of modern America, replete with stylish homes and three-car garages.

There is, too, another notable difference between poverty in Appalachia and pockets of poverty nationally. Statistics indicate that this mass of poor people are white. African-Americans in Appalachia are fairly novel here.

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