Understanding the Oil Spill's Psychic Toll

For all the environmental and economic harm caused by the disaster in the Gulf, the most lasting--and least visible--damage could be inflicted on the mental health of its victims

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Matt Slaby for TIME

The Landry Family

At J.F. Gauthier Elementary School, east of New Orleans, the kids of St. Bernard Parish are doing what kids are supposed to do in the summer: playing. Some of the older boys are shooting hoops; others are throwing a football to — well, at — one another. Younger children are getting a faceful of finger paint. Nearly all of them are buzzing with energy; an attempt by some of the adults on hand to gather them for lunch is futile.

But look closer. The friendly woman serving potato salad at the lunch line is a counselor, here to talk with anyone who needs it. The finger painting? It's art therapy, to help the kids get in touch with their feelings about the BP oil spill, which is still a fixture in their lives even though no crude has flowed since July 15. This impromptu summer camp has been arranged by the St. Bernard Project, a community group that has begun augmenting its main work, rebuilding houses for Hurricane Katrina victims, with classes in stress relief.

"The kids look all right," says Parker Sternbergh, a social worker at Tulane University, as she scans the children at play. "But sit down with them and you can feel the stress they're all under."

These children may be the youngest victims of the disaster, but they're hardly the only ones. You can read the stress in the tired, worried faces of their mothers too. They fear for their husbands in the fishing industry, many of whom still face a bitter choice between unemployment and taking a cleanup job with BP, the company they hate. They fear for their kids, who have been living with the spill since spring and will continue to do so for months and years to come. "There's so much tension in the family now, and the wives have to deal with all of it," says Yvonne Landry, a St. Bernard native who helped organize the camp. "All you can do is take it day by day."

As of this weekend, the cap and seal on BP's blown well were still holding and there was even talk of abandoning plans for the relief well, which has long been seen as the only reliable way to stop the flow for good. But in abundance of caution, the final drilling on the well will begin early next week, after which the site should at last be truly stable. The 4.9 million barrels of oil that did spill from the well have mostly been cleaned up or evaporated, according to a recent government report. But for Gulf residents, that seeming ending is little more than a continuation of the beginning. And just as the worst environmental impact of the spill could be occurring out of sight, in the depths of the Gulf, the most lasting potential social damage is invisible too: anxiety and anger that erode community ties and the very psyches of the residents.

Already there's a spike in demand for counseling, as well as increased reports of stress, excessive drinking and domestic violence. For a region that was still recovering from the serial traumas of hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, the spill couldn't have happened at a worse time. "These people are in crisis, and it's not coming across in the images we see on TV," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and the co-founder of the Children's Health Fund. His group carried out a study of 1,200 Gulf Coast residents last month and found high levels of anxiety. "This is ground zero for psychological catastrophe."

Disaster Deja Vu
Though the psychological trauma of the Gulf spill is just starting to become apparent, disaster experts know what to expect, because they've seen it before. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill inflicted a psychic wound on the residents of Alaska's Prince William Sound that still aches more than 20 years after the tanker ran aground.

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