The Trauma Lines Blog

Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists

Oil Spill’s Impact on Mental Health

with 8 comments

“Now, as the oil spill fiasco in the gulf continues with no end in sight, the psychological damage to Gulf residents is beginning to outweigh the toll taken on the land.”
Gideon Pine, The Huffington Post

Each day when we turn on the news, open a newspaper or log onto the internet, we can’t escape the latest updates on the Gulf oil spill. There are the disturbing pictures of the oil-drenched wildlife, the glossy surface of the incoming brown tide, not to mention the live video feed of the never-ending volcano of oil, erupting from the depths of the ocean, floating all the way to our nation’s shores.

But as we try and grasp the devastating toll this oil spill has taken on our nation’s wildlife and the surrounding economy, we need to understand the spill’s impact on the mental health of its victims, and act quickly to help them:

Two months since the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, mental health professionals in the region are preparing for the worst, citing the potential for depression, domestic violence and even suicide. Dr. Elmore Rigamer, medical director for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, told Huffington Post that he and his colleagues are prepared for a multi-pronged approach and anticipate challenges, since many of those most afflicted do not have the financial means or time to seek counseling.

Mental health care is crucial in this period, [Rigamer] emphasizes, noting that in general there is only a three-to-four month window in which the victims can adequately cope with hardship, followed by worsening depression and a sense of hopelessness.

Much of the stress is tied to concerns about the future economy of the region and the disappearance of fishing and shrimping jobs that have been handed down for generations.

Corrosive Community

The experts fear that the Gulf Coast will experience the same mental health issues as the residents in certain parts of Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989:

Dr. J. Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama and one of the foremost experts in mental health issues related to oil spills, is worried that, much like post-Valdez Alaska, cities like New Orleans will devolve into a “corrosive community.” In his 1996 study “The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and Chronic Psychological Stress”, he describes Cordova, Alaska, the area most adversely affected by the Valdez, as a community marked by loss of social capital — meaning loss of trust, family, friendships, networks and the sense of belonging within the community. As Cordova’s sense of community “corroded,” there was a rise in domestic violence, self isolation and medicating and depression. He also noted that prolonged exposure to an oil spill will cause many to dwell on the horrifying realities of the disaster, eventually leading to more severe mental health conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Besides the intervention of thousands of volunteers, what can be done to help the victims of the Gulf spill? Dr. Rigamer offers a very interesting solution that really seems to make sense:

It is well-documented that the infrastructure of the Gulf wetlands is in need of a massive overhaul, yet there have been no efforts to do so in the last 40 years. Rigamer suggests that BP, in an act of good faith, set aside funds for the rehabilitation of the wetlands and hire displaced workers and the unemployed to carry out the task.

READERS: What do you think of Rigamer’s idea?


Written by traumalines

July 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

8 Responses

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  1. This article was very timely and relevant. As many of us respond to natural disasters to aid victims, we can see the devasting impact that this man-made disaster has had on many individuals. Unfortunately, the oil spill has certainly taken a toll on many who were previously traumatized by the impact of Hurricane Katrina.


    July 7, 2010 at 8:19 am

    • Thanks Diane. You make a couple of good points. It can be easy to forget that this region is reeling from both man-made and natural disasters.

      Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.



      July 7, 2010 at 7:32 pm

  2. interesting and useful

    Abhishek Rane

    July 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm

  3. […] a comment » Earlier this month we wrote about the oil spill’s impact on mental health: “Now, as the oil spill fiasco in the gulf continues with no end in sight, the psychological […]

  4. […] Oil Spill’s Impact on Mental Health VIDEO: “Mental Health Concerns from the Gulf Oil Spill” Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)State wants BP to fund mental health servicesThere is little support in Congress for extending health insurance through …BP’s $20 Billion: Not A Single Dollar For HealthRep. Joe Barton supports BP relief fund […]

  5. the oil spill in mexico really affected the eco system around that area, it would take years to clean those mess

    Digital Caliper ·

    November 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm

  6. […] more information: “Oil Spill’s Impact on Mental Health“ “BP pledges $52 million to support mental […]

  7. […] more information:“Oil Spill’s Impact on Mental Health““BP pledges $52 million to support mental […]

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