Gulf Oil Spill: Officials Predict Mental Health Problems Similar To Post-Valdez Alaska

In addition to destroying the wildlife, killing animals and devastating the coastal economy, the massive oil spill in the Gulf will have damaging psychological consequences for Gulf coast residents for decades to come, say scientists and researchers.

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.

Rigamer, whose services are used mainly by the Vietnamese, Latino and Cajun populations, says that 12,000 people in various parishes have been counseled at one of Catholic Charities' five sites, though he wanted to make clear the distinction between stress and actual mental health problems. Though only 10 percent of those counseled needed further treatment, he expects that ratio to increase in the coming months. Mental health care is crucial in this period, he 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.

"Many young people in the fishing industry are starting to approach us with questions relating to the process that one must take to get his GED," said Dr. Rigamer, who acknowledged the sad fact that the Gulf fishing industry may have been dealt a fatal blow. He also warned of a more pressing issue within the older demographic of fisherman: "The job market for fishermen with hardly any education who are pushing 40 or older is not exactly thriving. These are the people who will find themselves bearing the brunt of this catastrophe."

In the last decade, residents of the Gulf region have endured several waves of devastation that has ravaged their homes and way of life. Since 2004, they have been forced to cope with the wreckage from Hurricanes Wilma, Rita, Katrina and Ivan, which rank among the ten most intense hurricanes in the Atlantic. 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.

One striking comparison is to the mental health problems experienced by Alaskans in the wake of 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.

One incident that truly captured the misery that occurs in the wake of oil spills took place in the spring of 1993, when former Cordova mayor Bob Van Brocklin commited suicide, making a direct reference to Exxon in his suicide note, blaming the oil giant for the loss of his various businesses. Today, Cordovans are reminded of the tragedy that came on the heels of the spill when they see the Cordova Family Resource Center, a battered women's shelter that was originally established in 1993 to shelter and counsel women who were being abused by their husbands.

Although he offers a gloomy prognosis for Gulf residents and their long-term employment options, Dr. Rigamer offers a comprehensive short-term solution that harks back to New Deal ideology. 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.

Both Rigamer and Picou acknowledge how dangerous idle time can be for the people in the Gulf. The Catholic Charities medical director explains: "The most demeaning thing you can do to the Gulf residents is force them to wait in line for their chance to make a claim against BP and have them depend on monthly checks to from them to survive. Most of these people have minimal education and only know the trade their families have been doing for generations. The worst thing you could do to them is force them to become dependent on the very company that put them in this mess to begin with. The Gulf victims cannot afford to lose their autonomy."