A bellwether of bad health

It’s not much fun being the distant early warning system for the rest of the United States.

According to a recent report by The Associated Press, West Virginia is the testing ground for anything negative that will eventually impact the health and well-being of Americans as a whole. Great.

In this case, the report was focusing on declining lifespans in the nation, a relatively new and unsettling trend. From the report: “The drug overdose death rate for all Americans today is where West Virginia’s rate was 10 years ago. The nation’s suicide rate is where West Virginia’s was nearly 20 years ago. Obesity was common in West Virginia before it became widespread in the rest of the country. And life expectancy began tumbling in the Mountain State before it began falling across the rest of the United States.”

Doesn’t exactly fill you with hope, does it? But, if you’re not depressed yet, West Virginian Maggie Hill, 67, is quoted in the report as saying, “I don’t think people have a lot to live for. I really and truly don’t see things getting better.”

That’s always been a piece of the puzzle in West Virginia. If you read the piece and discover all the things Hill has lived through, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. That’s applicable to the state, as well. So many things have happened to West Virginians — from the decline of industry to the rise of the opioid epidemic — that hope is a rare and sometimes even dangerous commodity. A lot of people here have been through the wringer a time or two.

But West Virginians also embody a strong sense of pride and, beneath all of that cynicism, there’s usually a sparkle of optimism that things will get better. A lot of small steps are underway at the local level across the state to combat opioids, make communities healthier and create job opportunities. As noted by the AP, most of these are “baby steps,” although Huntington certainly took giant leaps in the way it tackled the opioid problem.

There are circumstances in West Virginia that are beyond the control of its people, and assistance is needed. There are other issues that West Virginians can address one by one if not in some huge, thunderbolt moment. But one thing the state cannot do is embrace despair. That’s the hardest route to travel back from.

— Charleston Gazette