Activist and psychology student Paige Cordial studies
how coal mining affects the people of Appalachia.
BY FRANCESCA DI MEGLIO
Emerald green in spring and summer, a jewel-toned rainbow in autumn and snow-capped in winter, the Appalachian Mountains cast a spell on their dwellers.
The 205,000-square-mile Appalachian region includes all of
West Virginia and parts of 12 other states. Few have a deeper
appreciation for Appalachia and its people than native daughter
Paige Cordial, a psychology doctoral student at Virginia’s Radford
University. Cordial, who hails from Big Sewell Mountain, W.Va.,
chose Radford for its location — as well as its focus on rural
practice, social justice and diversity, she says.
“I plan to work and live here my entire life,” she says. “I can’t
imagine living anywhere else.”
The beauty of Appalachia, however, comes with many social
and economic woes. Mountaintop-removal coal mining and
fracking — a technique used to release natural gas — destroys
land and water and can also cause physical and mental anguish.
Access to mental health care is limited, and the region is facing an
epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Widespread poverty further
compounds these issues. With an economy based primarily in
mining and agriculture, Appalachia has been hit especially hard
by the recent recession, according to the Appalachian Regional
Commission. Ninety-six Appalachian counties were considered
economically distressed in fiscal year 2012.
Cordial has dedicated herself to helping her fellow Appalachians face this tangle of economic, environmental and mental health
challenges. She’s well suited for the challenge, says her advisor,
Ruth Riding-Malon, PhD. In addition to a deep empathy and
understanding for her clients, Cordial goes beyond her work
as a therapist to stand up for those with no voice, she says. “It’s
not enough for me to spend an hour a week with clients in a
counseling session when I see all kinds of problems surrounding
clients in their everyday lives,” says Cordial. “The environment is
contributing to folks’ problems, and I just can’t ignore that and do
nothing to make positive change in the region.”
Part psychologist and part activist
At Radford, Cordial has been involved in a range of volunteer
activities. She helps deliver free lunches to disadvantaged families
during the summer when kids are unable to get free food at
school. She participates in protests, rallies and marches to end
mountaintop removal and has helped to organize educational
events about the issue at Radford University. And last fall,
she joined protesters when a former psychiatric hospital in
Radford, Va., was marketed as a haunted asylum at Halloween,
perpetuating stereotypes of people with mental illnesses as scary
or dangerous. The protests received local TV and newspaper
coverage, which raised awareness about mental illness and
stereotypes, Cordial says.
Francesca Di Meglio is a writer in Fort Lee, N.J.