Preliminary research weighs in on fracking and rural well-being
A recent review of published research and policy literature concerning the mental health consequences to rural – and often agricultural – communities in which fracking has been undertaken to extract oil and natural gas indicates initial temporary benefits of this industry, usually followed by longer-term detriments to most communities.
This analysis of available research studies was undertaken by the Committee on Rural Health of the American Psychological Assoc., beginning in 2015 and culminating some two years later in a recent publication by Jameson Hirsch, Bryant Smalley, Emily Selby-Nelson, Jane Hamel-Lambert, Tammy Barnes, me and others in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
The full report can be found online at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11469-017-9792-5
According to the article summary: "The process … known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial energy acquisition technique often viewed with disdain by the public, due to its potential for environment harm. However, the mental health and psychological well-being of fracking communities, including potential benefits and detriments, are often overlooked.
“We reviewed the literature on the association between fracking and psychological functioning, finding that although persons living in fracking communities may experience some minimal benefits such as land lease income or infrastructure development, they may also experience worry, anxiety and depression about lifestyle, health, safety and financial security, as well as exposure to neurotoxins and changes to the physical landscape.
“Indeed, entire communities can experience collective trauma as a result of the ‘boom/bust’ cycle that often occurs when industries impinge on community life. Impacted communities are often already vulnerable, including poor, rural or indigenous persons, who may continue to experience the deleterious effects of fracking for generations.
“An influx of workers to fracking communities often stokes fears about outsiders and crime; yet it must be recognized that this population of mobile workers is also vulnerable, often ostracized and without social support.
“Practitioners, researchers and policymakers alike should continue to investigate the potential psychological implications of fracking, so that effective and targeted intervention strategies can be developed, disseminated and implemented to improve mental health in fracking communities.”
Fracking is occurring in many agricultural regions of the country, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, California, Oklahoma and many other states. An online report from 2105 notes that this petroleum-based energy-harvesting technique was being undertaken in at least 21 states.
Although public opinions suggest an overall negative impression of the process, most consumers do not object to relatively low current motor vehicle fuel and natural gas prices. Moreover, many people in the extraction and petroleum industries have benefited economically.
As the review article indicates, personal views “may be dependent on one’s perception.” The authors found no rigorous studies of the psychosocial consequences of fracking that used comparison groups of people exposed to fracking, versus those not exposed to fracking.
Many of the studies used surveys, interviews, analyses of public comments and focus groups to gather their data, all of which are useful methods to gather information that defines the scope of an issue.
Available studies should be considered as preliminary efforts to assess the impact of fracking on the mental health of people in areas where fracking has or continues to be undertaken. The suggestions of these initial studies should not be taken lightly, because they point to probable negative effects of these extraction processes on the mental health of not only individuals, but also communities.
The ascertained psychosocial consequences of fracking on whole communities and regions is only slightly clearer from this review of available studies, but also negative for the most part, and may include collective trauma. The long-term residents “have to bear the cost of the activity of others.”
The original – and remaining – residents often have to deal with the problems left behind after the “boom era,” which may include displaced workers, overused infrastructure in need of repair (e.g., roads, utilities), increased costs for many items such as housing that rose during the boom but which didn’t decline proportionately afterwards, negative changes to their overall habitat and a shrinking tax base, among other matters.
The authors concluded that “fracking remains a poorly understood yet controversial energy extraction technique that appears to be related to poor physical, social and psychological consequences for impacted and community members, who often are rural and poor.”
They went on to say: “There appears to be an array of levels of psychosocial functioning that are deleteriously affected by the fracking process and industries and their aftermath. It is hard to ignore the consistency of findings that point to widespread and potentially permanent effects on mental health.
“From a social justice and psychological activism perspective, grassroots organizations as well as indigenous groups (e.g., Native American tribes) have recently been using legal avenues to challenge and enact change in industry and government decision-making.”
I personally thank Dr. Hirsch for his leadership of the project. (For disclosure purposes, neither I nor the other contributors had conflicts of interest in the study, and we complied with required ethical standards.)
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org