Reporters are digging deep into the potential public health and toxicity issued posed by the oil that has been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. The mental component of that health toll, however, has only started hitting the headlines in the past few weeks. And while it maybe too early to follow the lead of Fox News’ Dr. Manny Alvarez and call it “Gulf Oil Syndrome,” the impact, both immediate and secondary, of the spill will need to be followed. Several reporters are off to a good start.
The New York Times‘ Mireya Navarro reports that, thanks to hard lessons learned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, charities dealing with those whose livelihoods have been threatened or suspended in the Gulf are now providing crisis counseling and related mental health services. Her story focused on Vietnamese fisherman who find themselves unemployed and on welfare for the first time in their lives and the immediate impact of the stress and lost income.
Writing for Slate, Marc Siegel took a wider view, considering the less-evident mental damage that could be wrought by the combination of human anxiety and heavy media coverage.
…people tend to react emotionally to a disaster like this and over-personalize the risks. The slightest sweet fragrance of crude-oil vapor causes them to think they or their children will soon fall sick; people fret that they will lose their jobs or their hours will be cut as the region plummets into economic decline. These fears, even though based on rational thinking, can cause obsessive worry, leading in some people to anxiety and depression. The news media’s constant attention magnifies the problem, bombarding us with breathless reports about the oil reaching new lands and the latest failed efforts at containment.
Siegel examined the mental health havoc wrought by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, then considered the circumstances in the Gulf of Mexico, where, the spill is larger, longer in duration and hitting a mental health system that’s still trying to recover from the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Put all that together, and it looks like the mental toll of the BP spill could be as bad as the hurricane itself.
“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.”
Siegel’s account is written with the authority and perspective of someone who has spent hundreds of hours researching the topic, and is a strong primer for anyone looking at mental health in the Gulf region right now.
- Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop (The webcast will be available online the week of June 28. )
- Resources for reporting on health and the oil spill