She woke up in the middle of the night, terrified. Her immediate thought was that a truck had just rammed into her home, and her family was in danger.
After the adrenaline had passed and the fog of sleepiness cleared, she realized it was just the oil and gas trucks again, heading down the street to the new job site, right across from her blind great uncle’s ranch.
She’s a family member of a Mental Health Colorado staff member, and a member of our grassroots advocacy network. And she’s not alone in her distress.
According to a 2020 study of “unconventional” oil and gas production in Colorado, such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, development activity near local communities and homes can trigger chronic stress. Ninety percent of respondents reported experiencing chronic stress, with a key cause being their inability to influence where industrial development projects are placed, and how close they can be situated to community members’ homes or their children’s school.
Perceived bureaucratic bias towards oil and gas companies in the local decision-making process can also be a strong driver of feelings of institutional hopelessness and chronic stress. Individuals and families can feel powerless.
Coloradans who have called these communities home for generations find that they often have little to say about the transformation of their world by an invasion of powerful industry. This stress on Colorado’s communities has a serious influence on mental health.
In fact, 75% participants in the study above said that oil and gas activity contributed to longer bouts of severe depression. Feelings of not having control over the safety and tranquility of our surroundings are not good for us.
When the great shutdown occurred last spring, many of us learned just how fast life had become — we had gotten used to operating with high stress levels and little sleep. We had normalized this stress so that being constantly overwhelmed and overworked had become just another part of life.
We have learned a lot from the pandemic. I, for one, learned that feeling stressed 24/7 is harmful to my physical and mental health.
And what about environmental impacts on our mental health? How many of us let those go unnoticed as well? The stress we feel, wondering if our water is safe, or the sadness we feel when we can no longer see the stars due to light pollution? The depression we feel when the family land is gone, sold piece by piece to sustain a vulnerable family economy?
We can’t have healthy minds when our surroundings become threatening and hostile. Exposure to noise from drilling aggravates health conditions related to stress and diminishes quality of life. Light pollution from oil and gas operations at night adds even more stress, impacting circadian rhythms and altering hormone releases.
We can’t have healthy minds when the bust comes, and livelihoods disappear overnight. Unemployment and loss of mineral rights income aggravate stress and depression, wreaking havoc on families.
We must have a larger community vision where we promote health and realize that how we are operating right now leads to chronic stress, depression and anxiety.
There is a better way. Instead of the harmful and short-sighted cycle of boom and bust, we must instead embrace the worthy objective of promoting community input whereby those impacted by policies have true representation in the decision-making process, allowing room for us to discuss ideas about how and where we live does indeed impact our health.
We can shrink disparities, build stability, and compete sustainably. Colorado could be aiming to be first in this nation to prioritize human health and well-being — and lead the way for other states.
Health is complex, just as we humans are complex. We too often lose sight of how we achieve well-being and forget how stress day in and day out becomes normalized until it starts to manifest in other ways.
As our advocacy-network member experienced, poor mental health can disrupt sleep, it can manifest in our physical health and lead to more serious health issues, and it can even lead to suicide.
We implore us all to take a step back and reflect on those factors that lead to our own poor health and advocate for ourselves and our families.
We all deserve to live in a community that promotes and defends the way of life we want and deserve, now and for generations to come.
Vincent Atchity is the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, the state’s leading advocate for promoting mental well-being, ending shame and discrimination, and ensuring equitable access to mental health and substance use care.
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