This cross-sectional study aimed to record psychological distress, as well as solastalgic feelings, linked with open-pit mining in Western Germany. We found high levels of self-reported depressive, anxious and somatic symptoms in all three groups examined (old villages, new villages, pit edge villages) and particularly in female respondents, with participants from old villages being most impaired, followed by pit edge and new villages. To our knowledge, this is the first study to quantitatively assess the links between psychological distress and environmental degradation caused by open-pit mining in Germany.
The study has attracted considerable interest within the study population: Despite the survey length, nearly 95% of the participants reached the last page while almost one third added comments at the end, providing details about their personal situation, further aspects of distress or feedback to the questionnaire. The different numbers of returned questionnaires from our three groups may be caused by varying population levels: most of our potential study participants in the area live in a pit edge village, while the villages affected by resettlement (old and new villages) relate to smaller and more precise groups of people (see Table 1).
Respondents living at the open-pit mine reported high levels of depressive, anxious and somatoform symptoms, with participants from old villages scoring slightly higher compared to respondents from pit edge villages. These findings indicate that the gradual loss of social and community structures and one’s own home and the reconstruction of a new home can create an additional mental burden. However, people in new villages, who are not anymore directly exposed to the open-pit mine or involved in resettlement activities, still showed elevated symptom levels when comparing with general population norms: Whereas in the most recent German population-representative studies that used the PHQ as a screening tool, prevalences for at least moderate symptom severity were 5.6 or 8.1% for depression (Busch et al., 2013, Kocalevent et al., 2013a), 5.9% for generalized anxiety (Hinz et al., 2017a) and 14.9% for somatization (Hinz et al., 2017), we found remarkable levels around twice to 7.5 as high in the open-pit mining-affected communities (see Table 2). However, it can be assumed that up-to-date general population norms for depressive disorders might be higher, and discrepancies with our respondents thus lower, since German health insurance funds reported increases in diagnosed depressions in the past years (Steffen et al., 2020). Yet there is debate about whether this trend is attributable to overall prevalence or other factors, such as coding practice or patients’ help seeking behavior (Bretschneider et al., 2018, Steffen et al., 2020). Also, the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to a generally higher mental health burden nowadays. While somecross-sectional studies carried out in the initial pandemic phase in Germany in early 2020 have found an increase in depressive and anxiety-related symptoms, mainly or only in younger and female individuals and those with pre-existing psychiatric disorders (Bäuerle et al., 2020, Peters et al., 2020, Schelhorn et al., 2021), longitudinal research indicated that these effects were rather transient or related to small and already vulnerable groups (Ahrens et al., 2021, Mata et al., 2021). However, so far published research focus mainly on the first lockdown in early 2020, while reliable data on long-lasting mental health impacts of the pandemic in Germany are yet scarce. Given that our data collection took place in June to July 2021, with very low regional incidences (RKI, 2021) and an ongoing European soccer championship, we consider impacts of COVID-19 on our results to be rather limited.
That female participants report higher depressive, anxious, or somatic symptoms in the PHQ are well-known phenomena from previous research, in the general population (Busch et al., 2013, Hinz et al., 2017, Hinz et al., 2017a, Kocalevent et al., 2013, Tibubos et al., 2021) as well as in the context of experienced environmental disturbances (Casey et al., 2018, Eisenman et al., 2015, Hendryx and Innes-Wimsatt, 2013). Regarding solastalgia research, gender is so far considered an understudied aspect (Galway et al., 2019). Nevertheless, Elser et al. (2020) observed higher solastalgia scores in female individuals, congruent with our findings.
The levels of depressive, anxious, and somatic symptoms should not be equated with prevalence of illness and do not serve as a substitute for accurate diagnostic interviews carried out by qualified professionals. Though scores of moderate symptom severity have shown good sensitivity and specificity in the diagnosis of major depression (Kroenke et al., 2010), more recent studies indicated that self-report screening questionnaires overestimate prevalences for both depression and generalized anxiety compared with diagnostic interviews (Jacobi et al., 2014, Levis et al., 2020). However, given that special barriers to seeking help and care for people with psychological problems exist in rural communities, like culture of self-reliance and lack of anonymity (Boyd and Parr, 2020, Parr and Philo, 2003), our results remain alarming.
Based on our questionnaire, including additional comments of respondents, we identified the following risk factors for psychological distress, without weighting their importance, claiming exhaustiveness or a direct causal relationship: environmental hazards such as dust and noise from open-pit mining operations and resettlement works, fear of ill health from those and other hazards/pollutants, solastalgia due to unwelcomed environmental change, loss of familiar places (home, land, property), negotiation and relocation related stress/workload, community and family divisions and erosions, future uncertainty, felt powerlessness, environmental injustice and political neglect, disturbances from activism, the press and curious public, nostalgia and uprooting. Similar themes of mental distress have been reported by local residents of open-pit mines in Australia, for example regarding personal health, damages to homes, properties, landscapes and community heritage, higher costs of living, changing neigbourhood structures, social pressure caused by mining companies as well as mistrust between supporters and opponents of mining (Albrecht, 2005).
While individual experiences, emotions and reactions are manifold, we observe a trend reflecting the high psychological distress in open-pit mining communities, whether affected by resettlement or not. The mental burden appears to be(come) lower for those that have distanced from the open-pit mine. This observation could be attributed to two different mechanisms. First, it could be based on exposure, ergo moving away from the open-pit mine would provide relief. Second, it could be due to the different characteristics of the two groups, also shedding light on rationales for early resettlement or prolonged stay.
Despite differences between the groups, it is conceivable that a greater day-to-day exposure to open-pit mining and its impacts is the most important driver of psychological distress and solastalgia. These assumptions align with prior published studies that describe adverse effects on the mental health and well-being of local communities exposed to open-pit coal mining (Canu et al., 2017, Hendryx and Innes-Wimsatt, 2013) or other developmental/industrial projects like oil and gas extraction sites (Casey et al., 2018, Hirsch et al., 2018, Mactaggart et al., 2018), petroleum refineries (Luginaah et al., 2002) or waste dumps (Elliott and McClure, 2009). For instance, Hendryx et al. (2013) found that residing in an area where mountaintop removal coal mining is practiced, poses a relative risk for mild and moderate (but not severe) depression, using the PHQ-8 (PHQ-9 with one item less) as a screening tool. A similar conclusion is reached in the study by Canu et al. (2017), where residents of coal mining counties had about 37% higher odds of being diagnosed with a depressive disorder compared to those in non-mining counties, based on an emergency department database. In contrast to our research, no increased risk for anxiety disorders was found here. Furthermore, it is an inherent feature of the concept of solastalgia, that solastalgic feelings are strongest when people immediately experience the unwelcome change in their homeland (Higginbotham et al., 2006). Thus, solastalgia diminishes when one no longer witnesses how the valued place is negatively transformed, which is consistent with our findings.
Noteworthy, perceiving the open-pit mine as a health threat, what around three quarters of the people living in its vicinity do, and what additionally was very often echoed in the comments, can result in emotional reactions like fear or anxiety. According to the 5-stage stress-coping model from Higginbotham et al. (2006), the further threat appraisal can lead to action- or emotion-based copying and finally adapting. Importantly, this threat appraisal is iterative, so the threat is constantly reassessed and responses vary according to personal situations and resources (Luginaah et al., 2002), which may also explain the decreased threat appraisal of resettlers (i.e. moving away from the open-pit mine as a form of action-based copying). Importantly, the subjective threat appraisal is paramount in generating emotional or psychological distress, rather than the real health risk, which is why nocebo effects may occur, ergo the expectation of illness from mining could already trigger (mental) illness (Hahn, 1997).
Notably, though place of residence was the key distinguishing criterion among the three studied groups, further observed differences may be relevant: Participants from old villages seemed more anchored to their homeland, as measured by longer family roots in the region and rather living on old family property. A congruent observation was made in a coal mining community in Southeastern Australia, where environmental distress, including solastalgia, was related to having a long family heritage in the area and occupying a heritage family home (Higginbotham et al., 2006). Deeper familiar embeddedness may be also one reason why people in old villages apparently considered relocation more difficult by not having completed it yet or by not even having started negotiations. In line with this, more participants in old villages (exactly one in two) have spent their entire lives in their village, compared with respondents from new villages, although these differences were not significant. Moreover, participants from old villages were significantly less likely to be married or in a partnership, which was identified as a sociodemographic correlate for depression in previous research concerning both coal mining affected communities and the general (German) population (Hendryx and Innes-Wimsatt, 2013, Maske et al., 2016).
Perceived poor advisory services from responsible bodies and greater concerns about worse life conditions after resettlement, including financial, professional, and personal circumstances, could be other individual factors shedding light on why resettlement has been more difficult for respondents from old villages so far. Also, a remarkably high rate of participants from old villages claimed having livestock. It is recognized that compensating residents with livestock, and therefore often larger plots, is more challenging for the mining company, since available land is scarce (Morris, 2021).
Moreover, delaying resettlement can be considered as an “act of resistance against the normality of displacement” (Willms, 2018), likely to be “committed” by those who have a more negative perception of the open-pit mine and mining company, felt predominantly upset or disturbed about the destruction of their homeland, nature, buildings or future generations’ perspectives and are more often engaged in activities against mining. Community resistance to mining projects is known to occur more likely when experienced environmental impacts are large, while the level of participation and trust towards responsible institutions are low (Conde and Le Billon, 2017). Individual or collective activities could be coping mechanisms, strengthen self-efficacy and thereby undermine perceived powerlessness (Jenkins and Rondón, 2015, Lubell, 2002). However, it may also be that these activities place an additional time, physical, and mental burden on involved respondents, and thus contribute to higher PHQ scores (Conner et al., 2021, Jenkins and Rondón, 2015).
Eventually, it is conceivable that resettling may improve community mental health by less exposure to the open-pit mine and its impacts. Conversely, keeping in mind empirical factors of vulnerability (e.g. people from old villages were less capable or willing to leave their homes so far), relocating residents from old villages may also result in persistence of symptoms or further psychosocial impairment. The cross-sectional design of this study does not allow to draw definitive conclusions on this. Given the fact that around half of respondents from new villages stated their living conditions had improved, we suggest that the overall resettlement outcome varies widely. This is further reflected by a majority of resettlement-affected participants (in old and new villages) reporting dividing disagreements over the open-pit mine in their communities.
While it is possible for old villages that resettlement distress contribute more to mental health problems than the mourning for environmental degradation (solastalgia) itself, findings from pit edge villages suggest otherwise: Though demolition of neighbouring villages could have a secondary impact on pit edge villages as well, the approxing open-pit mine and resulting environmental impacts seems to be the single biggest source of distress for them.
4.1 Limitations and future directions
Several limitations of this study should be taken into consideration, the first and foremost of which is its cross-sectional design, which does not allow for causal inference about the role of open-pit mining on the emergence or exacerbation of psychological disorders. A lack of pre-resettlement data makes relocated residents in particular vulnerable to recall and selection bias. Longitudinal surveys would be of interest to assess long-term psychosocial consequences of relocation, as well as of further mining developments, and to allow conclusions about cause-effect relationships.
Second, caution is advised when applying our results to the entire community. Since we could not test for non-response bias, more “environmentally aware“ residents or those disturbed by environmental hazards, mining-induced changes or resettlements, may have completed the long survey. Although we were able to make the questionnaire available to presumably all households in the old and newly-built villages at the Garzweiler open-pit mine, by using the drop-off method, we reached only few of those resettlers who did not participate in the “joint resettlement” but moved elsewhere (applies to approx. 40% of the resettlers; RWE, 2022b). Their perspective, which includes not only changing place of residency, but also leaving behind an entire known neighborhood and community, is underrepresented. Similarly, the views of underage and non-German speaking persons are not reflected in this study. Nevertheless, the high numbers of returned questionnaires allow at least for preliminary representation within the local context. There is a pressing need for more studies focusing on youth, which are in general highly underrepresented in solastalgia research (Galway et al., 2019), even despite evidence suggests that climate change puts a disproportionate psychological burden on younger generations (Hickman et al., 2021).
Third, our questionnaire contained more statements postulating negative than positive feelings about environmental changes and resettlement, hence there could be an acquiescence bias.
Forth, there is a lack of an appropriate control group in this study, without a local coal mining background, but that has comparable regional and socio-cultural characteristics. Thus, observed mining-specific risk factors for mental health remain preliminary.
Lastly, relevant themes may have been missed in our regular questionnaire, as to be assumed by some comments made from participants. Uncertainty about the future was a particularly frequent issue in all three groups. In old villages, respondents were particularly uncertain about whether their villages would be finally excavated or could be preserved, in the light of recent or expected political developments and power shifts. In new villages, a few participants expressed a desire to preserve their old villages, while many described the thought of strangers reoccupying their former homes as an enormous emotional burden, knowing that their resettlement would then have been unnecessary. The new German government's decision in November 2021 to preserve the old villages at the Garzweiler open-pit mine after all (The Federal Government, 2021) is thus likely to be a curse for some and a blessing for others. Beyond that, the feeling of being subject to environmental and political injustice cropped up in the comments. In new villages, benefits of relocation such as more age-appropriate and refurbished homes were further mentioned in the comments, but also burdens of living on a large construction site for many years, limited recreational activities and less access to green spaces. For the elderly, resettling was described as particularly stressful, given physical decline in later life, and familiarisation with the new village as disproportionally difficult, which is why an age-specific analysis of resettlement effects would be useful in future studies. Also, lacking safety due to burglaries in abandoned neighboring houses was mentioned in old villages. Perceived disturbances by the presence of activists, security forces, the press or curious onlookers (referred to as "ghost village tourists") in old villages were also commented on several times. Concerns about climate change and the perception that it is being fueled at one's doorstep were further described. The latter suggests that the proximate environmental changes are not the only source of worry, but rather accompanied by awareness for farther-reaching, global consequences of burning coal, possibly triggering eco-anxiety or ecological grief (Comtesse et al., 2021). Employment dependencies with the mining company or related corporates could have been moreover queried, since employees are less likely to criticize a project which is the direct or indirect source of their income (Willms, 2018). Also, inquiring about the precise progress of the resettlement process (e.g. no contact with the open-pit mining company yet vs. in sales negotiations vs. already acquired new land vs. building/arranging new home) could have further been revealing. Moreover, information about existing psychological diagnoses or substance use, known to be more frequent in mining than non-mining-communities (Canu et al., 2017), could provide a more detailed picture of mental health conditions in our study population. Those additional themes and characteristics could further contextualize the study findings and should therefore be focused on in future research.