The Biggest Casualty of the Oil Spill: Mental Health

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Rod Lamkey Jr. / AFP / Getty Images

Dean Blanchard, owner of a shrimp-processing plant in Grand Isle, La., is still dealing with the economic impact of last year's BP oil spill

When the Exxon Valdez ran ashore in Prince William Sound in 1989, the immediate focus was on the damage that millions of gallons of oil might do to the pristine Alaskan waters. And, indeed, the toll was terrible: an estimated 250,000 birds died because of the spill, and the Sound's productive fisheries took years to fully recover from the pollution. Even today, you can find leftover oil on the rocky islands of the Sound.

Yet there was another long-lasting impact from the spill: the mental health of the nearby community. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, stress and divorce all skyrocketed in the wake of the disaster, and the wounds were slow to heal. A recent study found that levels of stress among those Alaskans who were involved in litigation over the oil spill were as high in 2009 as they were in 1991. The oil spill was, as sociologist Steven Picou termed it, a "constantly renewing disaster."

Now, a year after the Gulf oil spill, there are concerns that even though the ecological effects of the accident aren't as great as initially feared, residents along the coast might suffer the same fate their predecessors in Alaska did. A forthcoming study of Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill — conducted by Picou, Liesel Ritchie of the University of Colorado and Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University — found that one-fifth of respondents qualified as being under severe stress, and one-fourth were in moderate stress. Those numbers are comparable to stress levels in the Prince William Sound area a few months after the Valdez spill.

Those Gulf Coasters who had a connection to local resources, like fisherman, were even more likely to experience high levels of stress, as were people with low income levels and low levels of education. And if the trends observed in Alaska hold true for the Gulf Coast, significant levels of stress could continue for far longer. "Given the social scientific evidence amassed over the years in Prince William Sound, Alaska, we can only conclude that social disruption and psychological stress will characterize residents of Gulf Coast communities for decades to come," the authors write.

The irony in the Gulf is that the one measure that was put in place specifically to reduce stress and get the community back on its feet quickly — the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which pays out damages from the spill — seems to be a major source of distress. The GCCF, which is run by Boston lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, was set up to disburse the $20 billion in funds put aside by BP to make the Gulf right, but since it began operations last August, residents have complained about slow payments, baffling paperwork and unfair settlements. There is confusion about whether lawyers should be involved, and anger over the fact that any resident accepting a final settlement from the fund has to forswear the right to sue BP or anyone else connected to the spill. The operation clearly isn't perfect, but it's "doing what's intended," Feinberg told reporters on April 18. For Gulf Coast residents, however, those good intentions are taking too long to play out.

Obviously there are economic consequences to the slow pace of oil-spill payments — it's hard to get your fishing boat back in the water if you're still deep in debt from last year. But there are psychological costs as well. The longer this process drags on, the longer that stress will last. Worse, residents might decide to turn to the courts and sue BP, which might be satisfying, but it won't help their mental health.

One of the most surprising findings from the Valdez research is that the biggest predictor of sustained stress years after the event wasn't whether victims were fishermen or lived close to the spill, but whether they were involved in a lawsuit. Fighting Exxon in court led to what Picou — who closely studied the sociology of the oil spill — called a secondary disaster, as the lawsuits forced the victims to relive the accident over and over. Now, on the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, the best thing officials could do for the mental health of the Gulf Coast is to design a claims system that actually works — and quickly.