Mullins. “I’m a quiet person. I’m not big on talking. But Dr.
Blair has helped me a great deal.”
Blair has, for example, provided grief counseling,
encouraging Mullins to visit Larry’s grave and talk to him to
help work through his loss. He’s also worked with Mullins
on pain-management techniques and other strategies to help
him deal with his daily chronic back pain.
But if it weren’t for his wife’s insurance, Mullins would
no longer be able to see Blair. Following the lead of many
other states, West Virginia recently privatized its workers’
compensation program. Only North Dakota, Ohio,
Washington and Wyoming still have state-run programs.
In 2006, West Virginia partially transferred its program
to BrickStreet Insurance, a private insurer, because it was
running out of funds. The program went fully private in
2008. The result, say Blair and other psychologists in the state,
is a demise of psychological and other rehabilitation services
Privatizing the program may have saved the state money,
but its disability rates have skyrocketed, rising more than
34 percent since 2002, according to the Social Security
Administration. There is no way to prove a connection
between privatization and increasing disability rates; the
Social Security Administration attributes the high numbers to
workplace injuries, unhealthy lifestyles and a lack of jobs.
But the fact remains that no other state has more working-age adults receiving Social Security benefits. These days, most
miners go straight onto disability pay, without any chance of
physical or psychological rehabilitation.
‘Culture of fatalism’
Part of the tragedy here, says Blair, is that miners are
particularly prone to experiencing and witnessing injury and
death, and thus psychological distress. Yet culturally, they are
less likely than the average citizen to seek psychological help.
“These are men who make sure to say, ‘I love you,’ to their
spouses before they leave each morning because they might
never see them again,” he says. Many are descended from
generations of miners and have lost relatives and friends in
the mines. Like Mullins, they’ve often seen buddies hurt right
next to them, and have been hurt themselves.
Many keep doing the job, though, because they don’t see
any other choice, Blair says. Often they have a high school
education or less, and in rural West Virginia, jobs are scarce.
Plus, the coal-mining pay is good — $80,000, sometimes up
to $100,000 a year. Compare that with the pay at Wal-Mart,
a fifth of that at best, and factor in that mining is a family
tradition, and the choice begins to make sense.
For some, there is also a thrill to descending deep below
the earth’s surface and facing danger, says Blair. Some enjoy
the camaraderie of being with their buddies, and the self-worth that comes with an ability to provide well for their
Psychologist Dr. David Blair says part of the tragedy for coal
miners is that they are particularly prone to experiencing and
witnessing injury and death, and thus psychological distress.
Yet culturally, they are less likely than the average citizen to
seek psychological help.
families. However, the constant danger can alter their sense of
reality, almost erasing a sense of future. “In the winter, they
go into the mines when it’s dark and they come out when it’s
dark,” says Blair. “The hours are long, and picking up a six-
pack on the way home is a typical way to relax and forget the
danger and fear.”
After an injury, drinking and drugs are also a way to
numb the pain, he adds. Oxycontin abuse has ravaged
the southwestern part of the state, where mining is most
prevalent. Some cities in the southern coalfields are being
called “drug cities,” says Blair.