Trauma in Appalachia

It is our hope that this message finds the people of Allegany County healthy and well as we navigate the economic, social, and medical challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic. During this already challenging time, America has again been confronted with the ongoing impact of our nation’s legacy of racial injustice and the trauma suffered by marginalized people in our society.

The purpose of this column is not to debate the presence of racially motivated trauma in American history, nor is it to argue about the ongoing impact of this trauma on specific groups of people. Both of these truths have been widely established and supported by theory and research in the social science literature.

The purpose of this column is to look specifically at the history of trauma and oppression experienced by the people of our own Appalachian region and to better understand the ongoing impact of this legacy. We look to use the current national focus on racial and regional social disparities as a call to action for the people of Allegany County to organize around our collective history in an effort to make the county a place where all children, adults and families can thrive.

In 1978, historian Henry D. Shapiro called the Appalachian region “a strange land inhabited by peculiar people” summarizing the popular view of Appalachia as a region and culture defined in terms of deficits and stereotypes.  In reality, our history may be better described as “valuable land inhabited by poor people”. Starting with the First Nation inhabitants of the land, Appalachians have experienced generational cycles of trauma caused by economic interest in our land and resources. These events have repeatedly threatened family livelihoods and–for First Nation people—the very existence of their culture. (For more information about the experiences of the Iroquois People, see the resources linked below.)

For the people of the Appalachian region, the experience of personal and community trauma related to the region’s boom/bust natural resource economy has shaped the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. Appalachian folk music is rich with narratives describing the personal dangers of working in the coal and timber industries along with the economic oppression experienced by families dependent on these industries. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about coal jobs in 1955, “You move sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” This pattern repeats (to some degree) in the region’s history from the 1800’s coal mining industry to the 2000’s natural gas fracking boom to the current debate about the AlleCatt Wind Farm (For an explanation of how the coal mining industry promoted and benefited from racial segregation and distrust between Black and White coal miners, see the article by Zwick (2018) cited below.

In addition to the personal traumas often suffered by families dependent on the dangerous jobs in the region’s natural resource economy, the widespread economic trauma of our region lies in the reality that our natural resources have made a great deal of money for outside investors while failing to provide widespread and sustained economic opportunities to lift local families out of poverty.  Perhaps the most devastating legacy of this history is that our community’s low socioeconomic status is a major predisposing factor for current childhood traumatic event exposure. Childhood trauma has long been established as a public health crisis that has a strong independent effect on adults’ medical, mental health, and social outcomes (Gelkoph, 2017). So we have a cycle that continues—economic and social difficulties create childhood trauma and childhood trauma creates medical and mental health problems that sustain economic and social difficulties.

Yet we also know Appalachia, and Allegany County specifically, is rich in the social resources that mitigate the harmful impact of personal and historic trauma on families and communities.  In the language of trauma informed care, we call these resources “social capital” and it means in our communities, we are deeply and personally connected to each other. We identify strongly with this place called Allegany County and we have strong social norms around our obligation to take care of our collective home and each other. During the COVID pandemic, we have seen these values on full display –from the #wellsvillestrong Facebook page to county-wide food distributions to the call to sew masks for our doctors and nurses. These protective capacities have a significant impact on social outcomes. In 2017, Zoorob studied the relationship between individual county’s social capital and the occurrence of opioid deaths and found a strong, inverse relationship between county measures of social capital and opioid mortality. Translation: our relationships with each other protect our children, neighbors, and community from the devastating social consequences of personal and historic trauma. We must continue to focus on this strength and engage our for-profit, non-profit and faith based institutions in efforts to build on it. For more information and ideas about how you can get involved, visit www.ppaccentral.org.

Trauma Informed Communities Throughout Allegany County (TIC TAC) seeks to build Trauma-Informed Care throughout Allegany County by empowering individuals, families and communities impacted by trauma.

For more information:

To learn about the history and culture of the Iroquois People, visit the Seneca Nation website or the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum.

For information about community food distributions, visit ACCORD Corporation’s Food Pantry.

Copeland W E, Shanahan L, Hinesley H, et al.  Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure with Adult Psychiatric DIsorders and Functional Outcomes JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7): e184493. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4493

Gelkopf M. Social Injustice and the Cycle of Traumatic Childhood Experiences and Multiple Problems in Adulthood. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7):e184488.

Zoorob, M. J., & Salemi, J. L. (2017). Bowling alone, dying together: The role of social capital in mitigating the drug overdose epidemic in the United States. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 173, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.12.011doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4488

Zwick, A. (2018). Comparison of the Coal and Fracking Industries in Northern Appalachia. Journal of Appalachian Studies, 24(2), 168–184. https://doi.org/10.5406/jappastud.24.2.0168

Get involved:

ACCORD is currently accepting volunteers for food distributions hosted by ACCORD at rotating sites throughout the community between Sept– Dec 2020, and for working in the food pantry, Monday-Thursday, 8am- 4pm, and Friday 8-3pm. Interested parties can contact Melissa Payne, Services Navigator, at (585) 268-7605 ext 1401.

%d bloggers like this: