Research shows how the BP oil spill will damage the mental health of those living in affected areas.

Health and medicine explained.
June 17 2010 11:02 AM

The Psychological Toll of the Oil Spill

Research shows how the disaster will damage the mental health of those living in affected areas.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.

(Continued from Page 1)

The psychological impact of the current oil spill is likely to be comparable, especially when you take into account the larger scope of the spill, the more densely populated region, and the profound impact on the local economies that rely heavily on the tourist and fishing industries.

"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."

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There is persuasive scientific literature to support this fear. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2007 looked at the Sea Empress oil tanker spill in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and found that the psychological impact on six coastal towns was quantifiable. In fact, the psychological effects were more profound, pervasive, and long-lasting than the physical effects—such as asthma, headaches, nausea, or skin rashes.

It is likely that people who lose their livelihood are most susceptible, for obvious reasons: Their lives have been radically destabilized, and they are facing financial pressures while trying to figure out what to do next. Perhaps the best way to inoculate yourself from psychological harm following a disaster is to get your hands dirty. A paper published in Epidemiological Reviews in 2005 examined the incidence of PTSD after natural disasters including fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes over a 40-year period and found a "substantial burden of PTSD among persons who experience a disaster." Women were more profoundly affected than men, and those with pre-existing psychiatric problems were predictably most susceptible to both short-term and long-term psychological harm. Rescue workers were not as frequently affected as victims, probably because their attention was channeled to the positive feelings of providing aid.

Of course, there are essential differences between a natural disaster and a manmade one. The fact that the current disaster was caused by man and was furthermore potentially avoidable may add to the stress. Psychiatric care and community care will be crucial in the weeks and months to come. Hospitals and clinics are sure to see a huge influx of patients, more than they can handle, so special clinics and emergency hotlines should be set up to deal with the severe mental-health crisis that is sure to occur. Psychiatrists and social workers may end up being just as important to the Gulf Coast's recovery as oceanographers and engineers.

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Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

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