After five years of deep research and reporting on what makes young men susceptible to extremist rhetoric and harmful content targeting them online, our team at 100 Days in Appalachia has identified one central element putting these men at risk: shame. This came as no surprise to us since—growing up in Appalachia—shame is something we are very familiar with.
Shame was a big part of my childhood. I worked hard to make sure my voice didn’t sound like the rest of my family. I rejected my grandfather’s bluegrass mixtapes in favor of loud, angsty sounds from the urban worlds outside my region. Ashamed of my prospects if I stayed, I was certain that I had to leave these hills to find any kind of real success in life.
"THE YOUNG PEOPLE IN OUR REGION FACE A VARIETY OF SYSTEMIC STRUGGLES—AN OVERWHELMED FOSTER CARE SYSTEM WITH CHILDREN IN HOTELS, A GROWING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS, THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC, DRUG USE EXPOSING KIDS TO UNFATHOMABLE TRAUMAS, AND A LACK OF ACCESS TO ADEQUATE, AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE AND LIVING WAGES."
Experiences of Shame in Appalachia
This isn’t only my story. I’ve heard and read hundreds of similar experiences with shame from people who grew up in Appalachia. Many young people feel alienated from their elders and especially the region’s politicians. They have become convinced they could never build a successful life here. Watching politicians introduce and pass bills throughout the region, young people feel that their politicians do not want the youth, the LGBTQ+ community, or women to feel welcome.
All of this has resulted in complicated feelings of shame from living and being raised in Appalachia. It all takes a toll. Every time I’ve ever traveled outside of Appalachia with my mother, I hear strangers pick apart her southern, West Virginia accent. People often bring up the infamous film Wrong Turn—a thriller based on the hillbilly horrors lurking in the dark backwoods of our nation’s Appalachian imagination.
Early in our lives—even as teenagers—Appalachian youth have already been vulnerable to shame, and it’s easy to understand why. The young people in our region face a variety of systemic struggles—an overwhelmed foster care system with children in hotels, a growing mental health crisis, the opioid epidemic, drug use exposing kids to unfathomable traumas, and a lack of access to adequate, affordable health care and living wages. Life is an uphill battle.
Studies have found that Appalachians suffer the poorest mental health in America. According to County Health Rankings, thirty-seven of the fifty US counties with the poorest mental health are in Appalachia. Thirty are in West Virginia, a state with just fifty-five counties. The ten US counties with the poorest mental health are all located here.
"INTERVENTIONS BASED SOLELY ON INDIVIDUAL PATHOLOGY OR MENTAL HEALTH WON'T BE EFFECTIVE IF THE HISTORIC AND GENERATIONAL TRAUMAS CAUSING WIDESPREAD SHAME ARE NOT ADDRESSED."
Dreaming of a Better Future
Many of the young people feel ashamed of Appalachia and dream of a future that begins with leaving it behind. They dream of finding dignity, success, and all the things they’ve wanted—elsewhere. But the reality is that many people don’t have the means to flee, and we don’t all want to leave—we just want the conditions of our home to improve so that we can stay.
In interviews with Appalachian boys at the Rural Digital Resilience Project, where I am a program manager, they tell us that they believe that their only way out is through the military or professional sports. Unfortunately, that romanticized future will never come to pass for most. Without a sense of possibility and opportunity, a shadow of cultural shame looms larger than a flashlight of hope.
We know, not only from our research but also our lived experience, that chronic shame catalyzes violence. Chronic self-contempt can make authoritarian movements seem attractive because they offer a sense of belonging.
"AS A YOUNG WOMAN FROM WEST VIRGINIA, I FEEL PASSIONATE ABOUT ADDRESSING STRUCTURAL ISSUES THAT IMPACT MILLIONS OF AMERICANS IN MY REGION. WE'RE FIGHTING BACK AGAINST CONSTANT MEDIA MISREPRESENTATIONS THAT ARE INTENDED TO SHAME RURAL PEOPLE."
Shame is pervasive in rural spaces. Yet, it’s hard to recognize the corrosive damage of shame when you grow up poor in America and shame is everywhere. Shame can even come in unexpected forms. For example, even the charities and philanthropists who feel they are helping us can make us feel ashamed of who we are. Interventions based solely on individual pathology or mental health won’t be effective if the historic and generational traumas causing widespread shame are not addressed. I believe there is a better way.
In response to pervasive shame, 100 Days in Appalachia, of which I’m a deputy editor, brings a trauma-informed approach to understanding and narrating rural perspectives, an approach that is based on our research at the Rural Digital Resilience Project. Our goal is to confront the issues that cause damage, without losing hope and agency for our young people’s futures.
For example, we launched an Appalachian Youth Creators vertical in 2020 that features commentaries, reported pieces, and narratives from Appalachian youth to give other young people space to think out loud and examine and amplify issues they know are impacting their identities, their communities, and, by extension, their politics. The vertical’s most popular piece—which has become one of our most-read pieces on the website in general—was written by a Kentucky high schooler about code switching and the shame she felt for having an Appalachian accent.
As a young woman from West Virginia, I feel passionate about addressing structural issues that impact millions of Americans in my region. We’re fighting back against constant media misrepresentations that are intended to shame rural people. And it’s that shame that can make authoritarian movements appealing to some. I believe that this work will illuminate with empathy rather than shame why young people are more susceptible to violent ideologies.
It is clear that simply addressing individual pathology or mental health issues will not be effective in combating this issue. Instead, a trauma-informed approach that confronts systemic issues and promotes empathy and agency is necessary to address the root causes of shame in Appalachia.
Kristen Uppercue is the deputy editor for 100 Days in Appalachia, a community-based publication focused on telling the stories of the people of Appalachia. She is also the program manager for the Rural Digital Resilience Project.