The Danger of a Single Story for West Virginia

This post has been a long time in the making. Like 10+ years. It’s been rattling around in my brain and influencing every step along my path. Sometimes it’s a deep sense quietly pointing the way and sometimes it’s frustration boiling up from just under the surface. In the past week, with the recent passage of some disheartening bills in the WV House of Delegates, it’s been more of the latter, and at the risk of getting “political,” it’s time for these thoughts to have a voice. Because for WV and her citizens (past, present, and future), it’s so much bigger than politics.

There is an unfortunate stereotype that haunts West Virginians. We’re supposed to be toothless, barefoot, dirty, poor, ignorant, racist, inbreeding hillbillies. That’s quite an image to overcome. I’m reminded of this stereotype every time I tell someone I’m from WV (once we’ve gotten past the fact that yes I do mean the state of West Virginia – which has been separate from the state of Virginia for a few years now) and am met with a puzzled look and something along the lines of, “But you don’t look/talk/act like you’re from West Virginia.” To which I typically reply, “Tell me what you mean by that” (I am a psychologist, after all) and then politely educate the person about the variety of sub-cultures that exists within the state. West Virginians are used to this. It’s almost like a rite of passage. I suppose I could let the comments and the jokes slide by, but after so many years of hearing them, that just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do anymore because to brush them off would be to silently accept and cement this dangerous stereotype.

A few years ago, someone sent me a link to a brilliant TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story.” It was in relation to an HIV project I was working with at the time, but her thoughts resonated with me at a much more personal level. As a person from WV, I live with the single story of West Virginia and so every day, I push back against that story. Others are, too, – Jason Headley in his beautifully written essays (State of Confusion and Dear West Virginia) that bring a tear to my eye each time I read them and Tijah Bumgarner with her documentary. Then there’s the recent scientific discoveries made by WVU professors – from uncovering the Volkswagen scandal to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory about gravitational waves. Collectively, these challenge the single story of the WV hillbilly.


Unfortunately, the WV House of Delegates has done as much to unravel this progress in the past few weeks as the years of work it took to make it. With the passage of bills that allow individuals to carry concealed weapons without a permit, require people receiving welfare to pass drug tests, and permit outright discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom,” these lawmakers have confirmed the WV stereotype in one fell swoop. I’m not going to touch the concealed carry issue. (Despite what many politicians say, I think this is a more nuanced issue with no easy answer and which requires more thoughtful discussion.) The welfare issue is slightly more bothersome, not least of all because of the failed track record in several other states that have piloted welfare drug testing programs. Is it really prudent for a state with the limited economic resources of WV to be spending money on a program with few apparent benefits? Not to mention that the substance use treatment programs to which offenders are supposed to be referred are in short supply. In a state grappling with substance use and mental health problems (particularly the epidemic of opiate addiction), why waste precious resources trying to catch a few people when that focus could be on improving access to treatment? The most disheartening was the proposal, let alone passage, of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Again, recent history is not on the side of this type of bill, as seen in Indiana. Appealing to a business sensibility, a report on the economic impact of tourism in WV over the past 10 years shows how little the state can afford to lose in tourism dollars were companies and individuals to boycott WV business as they did in Indiana. On a humanistic level, this bill does not represent the spirit of acceptance and equality that I and many people I know were raised to follow.

West Virginians do not cast each other aside. West Virginians bond together and look out for one another, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s part of the shared experience of living with the single story of WV, of being the outcasts and the underdogs, that makes us closer. This bill does not uphold the WV value that “Mountaineers are always free.” This bill affirms the stupid, single story of WV. Several delegates spoke out against the bill and some municipalities throughout the state already have passed ordinances in opposition of it. I hope that the WV Senate does the right thing and votes it down.

I’m still a proud Mountaineer. I’m grateful for having the chance to grow up in WV, to weave together my stories. I hope that others will get to experience all that WV has to offer, and I hope that West Virginians will allow everyone to explore all of her beautiful stories. I urge West Virginians everywhere to work to make our home state better, not drive it backward. Show the welcoming spirit for which we have become known.


Artwork by Jessica Kennedy


Mental Health Month

May is Mental Health Month, and Mental Health America is focusing their campaign this year, B4Stage4, on encouraging screening and early intervention. They propose that with earlier identification and intervention, mental illness can be treated more effectively, preventing its progression and ultimately lowering disease burden and health care costs. Though the USPSTF recommends routine depression screening only in the cases where mental health supports and follow-up are readily available (by having psychologists or other mental health providers integrated into primary care clinics, for example) and doesn’t make a recommendation for routine screening for suicidal thoughts, the MHA campaign promotes a new way of thinking about prevention and treatment of mental illness that is more aligned with how we think about prevention and treatment of physical illnesses such as cancer (though this dichotomy assumes that mental and physical illness are two separate things, when many times they are closely intertwined). With 50 percent of Americans meeting criteria for some mental illness during their lifetime, any prevention and treatment efforts are crucial. Below are two of my favorite Ted talks on mental health.


I struggled with what I wanted to express with this post, and I still don’t have a fully developed comment for it. However, I felt it important to share the powerful Ted talks I watched recently that provide another perspective to the social commentary that has been swelling around our troubled criminal justice system and the protests, riots, and general emotional reactions to what has been playing out on the national news in the past few months. So much of what I have read and heard has been from the viewpoint of people with privilege, something I acknowledge I share, the privilege of growing up in a safe neighborhood, with a supportive family, guaranteed an education. But our social justice problems cannot be understood and cannot be addressed from this perspective; we have to understand things from the “other” point of view. For now, I will leave the videos here and perhaps write more later. In the meantime, I will hope that we start to open our eyes to the cultural changes that must take place to allow underprivileged individuals the same fair shot at the American dream that has been sold to us all.


A Season for Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving always has been my favorite holiday – it’s a day centered around delicious food and expressing gratitude for the people and things for which you are thankful. I feel fortunate to have so many things for which to be thankful in my life and try to make a regular practice of noticing and expressing this gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal or maintaining a similar gratitude practice is associated with a host of health benefits, including boosts in immune system functioning, improved response to stress, and enhanced mood and well-being. No wonder then that so many scientists are researching and extolling the effects of gratitude, as evidenced by Ted’s Thanksgiving-themed playlist.

One of the many things for which I am grateful was the overabundance of food at my family’s Thanksgiving table. Many individuals are not so fortunate, with 1 in 6 individuals in the US going hungry, according to Feeding America. Perhaps in this season of giving, you might be inspired to donate to an organization that works to combat hunger in America and throughout the world, such as Feeding America, Heifer International, Meals on Wheels, and others. A simple way to minimize food waste in your home, get creative with using up your Thanksgiving meal leftovers. Below are a few tasty ideas!

Sweet Potato Casserole = Sweet Potato Pancakes


Image by Lydia Degaris at

Mashed Potatoes = Mashed Potato Latkes or Shepherd’s Pie


Image courtesy of

Boil the turkey bones to make stock for Turkey Noodle Soup or Turkey Chowder



Stuffing = Stuffed Mushrooms

stuffed mushrooms

Image via

Cranberry Sauce = Sweet & Spicy Meatballs


Image via Taste of Home

Playlist: 5 Mindshifting talks on happiness

TED Blog

(TED is on its annual two-week vacation. During the break, we’re posting playlists from the TEDTalks archive. We’ll be back with new talks on August 29th.)

Happiness seems simple, yet the more we look into it, the more layers and complexities we find. Here are five TEDTalks that will transform how you view happiness, and how to achieve it.

1) Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.


2) Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness.


3) Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life…

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You too can be happy. Really. A Q&A with Shawn Achor

My favorite quote (and lesson): “A rhinoceros is on a treadmill, and it’s sweating and running as fast as it possibly can, and it’s looking up at this poster of this beautiful unicorn. So it’s trying to run as fast as it can to be a unicorn, and inherently it’s creating greater levels of frustration, because it’s not a unicorn, it’s a rhinoceros, and it should be the best rhinoceros that it can be.”

We can’t find happiness by looking at other people. Contentment and success start with accepting ourselves for who we are, without judgment of “good” parts and “bad” parts.

TED Blog

Photo courtesy TEDxBloomington. Photo courtesy TEDxBloomington.

“We think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier. But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order,” said Shawn Achor in his charming, immensely popular TED Talk from TEDxBloomington, “The happy secret to better work.” Achor is the CEO of consulting firm Good Think, which conducts research on positive psychology and helps people apply it to be happier and more effective at work. His 2011 talk drew on the research from his bestselling book on positive psychology, The Happiness Advantage, and since then he’s had a new question on his mind: Why are some people able to make positive changes in their lives, while others remain stuck in their ways? His latest book, Before Happiness, published last week by Random House, addresses just this question. In it Achor describes the five essential elements that are needed to develop a…

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4 scientific studies on how meditation can affect your heart, brain and creativity

TED Blog

Many people have tried to sell me on the idea of meditating. Sometimes I try it, and have an incredible, refreshing experience. But usually, as I close my eyes and focus on my breathing, while I know that I’m supposed to be letting all thoughts go, more and more fly through my mind. Soon I have a laundry-list of “to-dos” in my head … and then my legs fall asleep. It’s all downhill from there.

Today’s TED Talk, however, might actually convince me to give meditation another shot.

“We live in an incredibly busy world. Our pace of life is often frantic, our minds are always busy, and we’re always doing something,” says Andy Puddicombe at the TEDSalon London Fall 2012. “The sad fact is that we’re so distracted that we are no longer present in the world in which we live. We miss out on the things…

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Embracing Doubt

In one of my first posts, I wrote about overcoming self-doubt. I’d like to revisit that topic. I think there is a step between experiencing doubt and overcoming it. I think we first must embrace it. Embrace it because doubt can be a good thing. Our first reaction to negative emotion usually is to try and make it go away, push through it, stop it somehow. We do this because negative emotions hurt, and we believe that if something hurts, it must be bad. But as Lesley Hazleton points out in her TED talk about doubt, sometimes these negative emotions open us up for something far greater. Doubt, for example, allows us to have faith. (If we had all the answers, why would we need faith?) Doubt allows us to feel accomplished when we prove to ourselves or to others that we can do something we (or they) didn’t think possible. I’ve learned that doubt shows us what we want. So maybe we don’t need to overcome it at all. Maybe by opening up to doubt, by moving with it rather than through it, we can experience something new.

Gifts that Give: Part II

I was disgusted last week to read about a certain PR rep’s ill-informed tweet about AIDS in Africa. After mulling over what would motivate someone to write something so insensitive, I decided (hoped) that it must be ignorance. And where there is ignorance, there is an opportunity to educate. Accurate information about HIV/AIDS isn’t on the radar for a lot of people who don’t have some type of contact with people infected or affected by it. So here’s a bonus gift – the gift of knowledge! One woman’s trash is another’s gift that gives.

Some basic HIV/AIDS facts, brought to you by and

  • HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV is a virus affecting the immune system; if not controlled, it can lead to AIDS, which is a combination of illnesses marking the last stage of HIV.
  • HIV is no longer a “death sentence.” Fortunately, fewer people are dying from AIDS due to advances in medical treatment. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to medications. In fact, only about 34% of people who need treatment have access to it.
  • HIV is passed on through bodily fluids, which may be shared most commonly during sexual contact, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and injection drug use. It is NOT passed on by hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or drinking after someone.
  • HIV is not a “black” disease or a “gay” disease. It is not ascribed to any one group in particular. Risk for HIV infection is increased through certain high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex or injection drug use. If you have had sexual or other high-risk contact with someone who may be infected with HIV, you can find local testing sites at
  • Blacks/African-Americans are the racial group most disproportionately affected by HIV. I present this statistic not to perpetuate an ugly stereotype but to encourage us to think about the other factors related to HIV risk and treatment that also disproportionately affect African Americans in the US. For example, there are economic inequalities that fall along racial lines, severely impacting access to medical care. Worldwide, 97% percent of people living with HIV are in low-or middle-income countries. And for really thought-provoking talks about ways to address the economic factors and policy related to HIV risk: