Mental Health and the Gulf Oil Spill

We are still trying to get our heads around the massive and far-reaching effects of the massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast of the United States. It’s clearly too soon for anyone to even predict what all the effects are going to be, much less estimate the severity or significance of those effects. The spill will affect the environment, the local and national economy, employment, tourism, where people live, even seafood supplies for restaurants. It is also very clear that there will long-term, significant health effects from the spill and the toxic dispersants used by BP to address oil in the ocean.

Putting all of those effects aside, I want to focus on the mental health effects of the spill. Obviously, we are still very close in time to the three month period before July 15, 2010, when an estimated 3 to 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, so quantifying or understanding the mental health effects is difficult. An initial report from Louisiana State University found that nearly 60% of the 925 coastal residents they interviewed “said they were almost constantly worried by the oil spill.” Another recent study done by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (pdf) gives us some preliminary data on the impact of the spill on the mental health of the coastal population, focusing specifically on the mental health of children. And it is, frankly, not very good news.

The survey was limited to people who live within 10 miles or a 30 minute drive from the coastline in Louisiana and Mississippi. Between 40% and 50% of people had had direct exposure to the oil spill, either by being involved in the cleanup, coming in direct contact with spilled oil or cleanup activities, or who had lost or damaged property as a result of the spill. Excluding children who had emotional or behavioral problems prior to the spill, about 20% of the children in the sample were experiencing mental health problems after the spill. The researches estimate that only about 15-20% of these mental health problems were associated with direct exposure to the spill and cleanup activities, meaning that the remaining 80-85% of mental health problems were among those without direct exposure. Having direct exposure made both adults and kids about twice as likely to report mental health symptoms.

It will be utterly unsurprising to most readers of FWD to learn that mental health problems were related to the race and income of households. Black families were significantly more likely to have mental health problems among both adults and children. Similarly, children in households with incomes less than $25,000 were nearly three times as likely to have mental health problems than children in households with income over $75,000.

The study suggests that these mental health concerns are substantially related to parental concern and uncertainty about remaining in the Gulf Coast area. Households that indicated the family may move away from the area were twice as likely to have a kid with mental health symptoms. As the study says, “the human impact of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast’s “social ecology,” that of its residents, communities, and social networks, may only be accelerated by such uncertainty.”

One woman interviewed by the study told the New York Times how the spill was contributing to mental health problems for her family:

Shannon Drury, a mother of four in Venice, La., said her husband, a commercial fisherman, had been working for BP but was owed six weeks’ pay. For a time after the spill, Ms. Drury was forced to find work as a houseboat cleaner, coming home exhausted at night. Ms. Drury’s 11-year-old daughter has grown more insecure, she said. Another child has developed a mysterious rash that Ms. Drury suspects is infected. Tensions over money, she said, reminded her of the warning from a visiting speaker from Alaska, who said the divorce rate there had skyrocketed after the Exxon Valdez disaster. “I realize what the woman was talking about now, because it puts different strains on your family from what you’ve been used to,” Ms. Drury said.

This kind of mounting pressure is similar to the National Institute of Mental Health’s understanding of how disasters like the oil spill contribute to mental health problems. As NIMH Dr. Farris Tuma explains:

One of the tragedies that we have seen over and over again after large scale disasters, is really a spiraling downward of people who were, maybe, managing to keep their lives together, to keep their emotions and behavioral problems under control. But with some additional stress and some additional disorganization in their community- really became quite disabled by their anxiety, depression, psychosis.

Despite the magnitude of this problem, the current resources available for these families and communities are very limited. One of the women interviewed in the study told the New York Times the only counseling resources to which she had access were a new program started by her church to respond to the spill. All of this suggests that BP should be held responsible for assisting these families with their mental health symptoms resulting from the spill. Unfortunately – and again, unsurprisingly – Kenneth Feinberg, the independent “claims czar” who will decide who gets compensated from BP’s compensation fund, said the fund was not likely to pay damages for mental illness and distress alleged to be caused by the spill.

“If you start compensating purely mental anguish without a physical injury — anxiety, stress — we’ll be getting millions of claims from people watching television,” Feinberg said. “You have to draw the line somewhere. I think it would be highly unlikely that we would compensate mental damage, alleged damage, without a signature physical injury as well.”

Please excuse me while I beat my head against the desk for about an hour or so. The implication that compensating people who have experienced the kind of mental anguish and uncertainty described above would open the door to an endless stream of claims from people who felt mildly upset when viewing television coverage of the spill is so condescending, so insulting, so wildly inappropriate that I’m having trouble responding coherently. This kind of attitude is offensive on a broad level – it minimizes the significant impact of mental health problems by equating them to obviously silly and spurious claims and implies that only physical health problems are “real” problems worth compensating.

But this attitude is even more harmful for Gulf Coast residents. This is compensation that people need in order to seek treatment and assistance with their mental health problems that they are otherwise extremely unlikely to be able to afford or obtain, so denying these claims means they’ll be left to cobble together whatever meager resources they can. As the study discusses, these are not isolated people who live in a vacuum, but will have real and lasting effects on the “social ecology” of the region, affecting entire communities and regions. And the people most likely to be left without any help are those who are already more vulnerable because of their race and their poverty. In short, administering the fund this way and denying these claims will not only perpetuate but actually exacerbate the underlying inequalities in the region, punishing poor children of color for the stigmatizing beliefs held by Mr. Feinberg.

This is especially galling as there have already been suicides linked directly to mental health problems stemming from the oil spill. William Kruse, who had two boats he expected to use for tourism over the summer, was forced to work cleanup for BP and became increasingly depressed and despondent, eventually killing himself in late June. It is almost certain that there have been more suicides that have not received national news coverage. It is unclear whether Mr. Feinberg would consider a gunshot wound to the head a physical injury sufficient to justify compensation of the underlying mental health problem.

Thankfully, the state governments are reaching out to BP for help in this area. Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all submitted requests to BP for money to provide mental health services to affected residents. Louisiana has requested $10 million specifically for emergency mental health services to respond to the crisis. (BP has not yet responded to these claims.) We can only hope that these states and the Congressional members who have oversight over the BP compensation fund will continue fighting so that the mental health needs of affected residents can be met.

Thanks to Karen Whyte for the suggestion for this post, as well as for many of the links and materials cited here.

One thought on “Mental Health and the Gulf Oil Spill

  1. I need to dig out my copy of The Buffalo Creek Disaster for specifics, but if I recall correctly (and Google seems to be backing me up?) a large part of the settlement was for mental suffering and trauma. (The Buffalo Creek flood was a terrible coal mining disaster in the 1970s wherein dams broke in West Virginia causing basically the entire town of Buffalo Creek to be swept away by floodwaters.) So, there is precedent for compensation for mental health issues in the wake of a disaster.

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