BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — Lack of opportunities is not just hurting West Virginia’s economy — it is also linked to widespread mental illness, a leading psychiatrist and West Virginia University economist agreed on Tuesday, February 28, 2023.

Various studies, including data from the website shows West Virginia leads the nation in poor mental health. The study lists the top 50 counties across the country with the poorest mental health.

Thirty of the counties in West Virginia, including McDowell, Fayette, Summers, Boone, Nicholas, Pocahontas, and Wyoming counties all appear on the list.

Other studies designate Raleigh County as having poor mental health.

Dr. Ahmed Faheem, a Beckley psychiatrist who served on the West Virginia Behavioral Health Commission under the Manchin Administration, said the decline of the state’s coal-dependent economy led to a cultural change that affected families and communities.

“Look at what happened to our coal industry,” Faheem said. “People were born and worked in it for generations, and, suddenly, they had to change and have to accept there are other things out there. But, then, where are those other things out there?”

He said the poor economy and lack of educational opportunities contribute to substance abuse and poor mental health. Faheem said the economic shift has led younger people to leave the state.

Poor mental health has led to fewer workers, which is a major factor harming West Virginia’s economic development, economist John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said.

“Getting more of our West Virginians into the workforce, ready, willing, and able to work, is actually one of the top economic development priorities,” said Deskins. “To improve the quality of life for West Virginians and also to make West Virginia more attractive for businesses.”

Both Deskins and Faheem said substance use disorder is another factor leading to poor workforce participation. Faheem said mental illness is tied to more crime, including domestic and gun violence and human trafficking. He said the state has a shortage of mental health care providers to help address the issues, however.

“It’s not uncommon for people to wait for about a month or two or three months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist or something like that and by that time the crisis is over,” said Faheem.