BP Oil Spill Taking Mental Toll in Gulf Coast Communities

People impacted by the BP oil spill are exhibiting mental health problems similar to those seen in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster, according to a researcher who has spent the last 20 years tracking the mental health fallout from that 1989 oil spill. Steven Picou recently told NPR that the BP oil spill is “almost like Exxon Valdez fast-forward.”

The BP oil spill began on April 20, 2010 with an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men. Attempts to staunch the gusher failed, until a cap was successfully deployed over the undersea well on July 15. By that time, roughly 4.4 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The BP oil spill, which now ranks as the largest offshore oil disaster in US history, paralyzed important segments of the Gulf Coast’s economy, including seafood and tourism.

According to the NPR report, disasters like the BP oil spill can significantly alter the communities they impact. Many are unprepared for the mental health consequences of such disasters.

“In Alaska, the communities up there were blindsided,” Picou told NPR. “They did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started and the divorces started and the domestic violence became acute in the communities.”

Now he fears the same thing may be happening in Gulf Coast communities affected by the BP oil spill. He pointed out that least two suicides have been linked to distress over the disaster.

According to NPR, community organizations, such as the Red Cross and local churches, have stepped up efforts to provide mental health services to people impacted by the disaster. Picou is training “peer listeners” – people ready to identify oil-spill related stress and help their family and neighbors cope.

Sociologists warn if the Exxon Valdez experience in Alaska is the model, the worst could be yet to come, NPR said.

Others have also seen evidence of the mental toll the BP disaster has taken on communities. According to a report from the Press-Register, crisis counselors in Baldwin County, Alabama have reported finding significant depression and anxiety and even failed marriages linked to the disaster.

“We’re hearing many stories of financial ruin and people losing everything they worked for,” said Robin Riggins, executive director of the Baldwin County Mental Health Center.

Last month, counselors began conducting random surveys in the communities of Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fole, the Press-Register said. Half of the 494 surveyed were invited to begin counseling based on their responses. That’s compared to 174 who sought help over oil spill related issues over the summer, before the survey began.

“It tells me the problem is continuing to exacerbate,” Riggins said.

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