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The mental toil of oil

June 24, 2010 |  2:47 pm

Fisherman As oil continues to seep into the Gulf of Mexico, psychological traumas caused by the catastrophe similarly seep into the minds of the residents, fishermen and shrimpers of the region. Judging by past environmental mishaps and anecdotal evidence gathered over the last few weeks, this oil scourge is more than just a disaster for the wildlife and beauty of the region -- it is also a prelude to a long line of damaging mental health effects for the people of the surrounding area.

In President Obama's June 15 speech addressing the spill, he boldly said, "We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."

If Obama is serious about his statements, then any recovery plan either the administration or BP comes up with must contain BP-funded psychological counseling for the residents, shrimpers and fishermen affected by the tragedy.

In the past, dramatic ecological disasters have usually been followed by a significant increase in post-traumatic stress disorder among residents and workers in the affected area. In a June 21 Times article, gulf shrimper Adam Trahan was quoted as saying, "I look out there and see my life ruined. ... I'm just walking around in a circle. ... I've never been this confused in my life."

The article goes on to note that after the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, Alaska saw an increase in "suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism."

Examples of this can already be seen in the aftermath of the gulf spill: A Times article Thursday reports that William Allen Kruse, a 55-year-old fishing boat captain, apparently committed suicide this week.

"How can you deal with watching the oil kill every damn thing you ever lived for in your whole life?" charter captain Ty Fleming said of Kruse's death.

In his speech, Obama said, "The sadness and the anger that [the people affected by the spill] feel is not just about the money they've lost, it's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life might be lost. ... I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness."

When setting aside funds, failing to address the psychological issues would simply be ignoring half the problem. Once the damage done to the gulf is subdued (however long that may take), who -- or what -- is going to repair the damage that same spill has done to the psyches of the fishermen, shrimpers and residents of the gulf? The damages their consciences have sustained could be just as long-lasting and severe as the damage suffered by the coast itself.

BP can buy sponges to soak up the oil that has tainted the waters of the Gulf Coast, but funding psychiatrists to soak up the trauma that has seeped into the minds of the shrimpers and fishermen whose lives have been radically altered by this disaster is equally important.

In "Toxic Turmoil: Psychological and Societal Consequences of Ecological Disasters," a book that offers an overview of research on the psychological and societal consequences of ecological disasters, among the mental consequences described are anxiety, hyper-vigilance and other post-traumatic stress reactions. If the fishermen and shrimpers become mentally crippled in the aftermath of the spill, how, without proper mental care and recuperation, can they be expected to jump back into work once the gulf has been cleaned? The trauma would still be rocking their boat -- and not in a good way.

Even if the oil is eventually removed from the coast (unlikely), if the damages left by the oil aren't similarly wiped clean from the psyches of the Gulf Coast workers, progress cannot be made.

Obama said, "Beyond compensating the people of the gulf in the short term, it's also clear we need a
long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of the region."

It's troubling Obama failed to cite the mental health factor as one of the long-term problems that must be grappled with. The psychological trauma sustained by fishermen and shrimpers is devastating to the vibrancy of the Gulf Coast, and if either BP or the Obama administration doesn't acknowledge that, oil -- and its aftereffects -- will continue to plague the Gulf Coast.

-- Emilia Barrosse

Photo: Fisherman Jeff Brunfield looks at an oil-coated containment boom protecting Cat Island from the BP oil spill near Grand Isle, La. Credit: Tannen Maury / EPA

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