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Gulf Oil Spill Effects Mental Health


For many people, the psychological effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be devastating and experts expect mental health issues to go on the rise. "There's a lot of social disruption. That's what technological disasters tend to do," says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He will be speaking on the spill's potential long-term effects.

Howard Osofsky, chair of the psychiatry department at Louisiana State University says, "We're seeing indications that people are drinking more. We are also beginning to see some indication of increased domestic conflict." He plans to present early findings about the psychological health of people in the region today.

While images of oil-soaked pelicans remind the fishermen and business the devastating effects, an even bigger challenge for the mental health workers dispatched from Louisiana to Florida to is at hand to help battle the hopelessness and despair.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 touched off a wave of suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism in Alaska that created an entire literature on the unique and confounding psychology of technological disaster.

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J. Steven Picou of the University of South Alabama, the author the research on oil spill stress in Cordova, Alaska, stated, "The first suicide occurred in Cordova four years after the spill. I try to explain to people, this is a marathon, and you have to try to stick together. And you have to try to take care of yourself," Picou said. "Don't become obsessed with sitting in front of the television watching this wellhead just gush thousands and thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every minute."

It's believed that the effects on the ability of people to make a living, the damage to the areas they lived in, social, economic and cultural dislocation, and even the quick money that came from working on cleanup crews disrupted communities and affected mental health, Palinkas says.

"The hurricane was an act of God. It's a little bit easier to take. You can only be angry with God for so long," said Elmore Rigamer, a psychiatrist who is state medical director of Catholic Charities, which is working closely with Louisiana to send counselors into seaside communities. "But this — the more we understand that this could have been prevented, and this was just a failure of corporate ethics in terms of profit, really, overriding responsibility, this makes it really difficult to take," Rigamer said.

"The oil spill in the Gulf carries with it a very significant risk of PTSD and major depression, as well as other psychiatric disorders," says psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, author of Living the Truth. "The Exxon Valdez spill was a one-time shock, and that alone caused tremendous suffering on a psychological level. I fear that this event, with its protracted course, could prove far more toxic."

Meanwhile, psychiatrists, counselor and social workers will be just as important to the Gulf Coast's recovery as the recovery workers and engineers.