Man-made Disasters Like Oil Spill Take More Severe Mental Toll

Oil sludge on the beach
Oil continues to pour deep below the water's surface and wash ashore along the northern Gulf Coast. Mental health experts worry about the ongoing disaster's psychological toll on local residents.
TAMPA (2010-07-06) -

Last month’s suicide by a charter fishing boat captain in Orange Beach, Ala., was not surprising to disaster mental health experts. His death has been blamed on the Gulf oil spill, and they fear more such cases will appear as the disaster continues to unfold.

“Those people who are teetering already in terms of their own mental health -- and especially those, like this captain, who have responsibilities not just to oneself and one’s family but to one’s employees -- it’s almost impossible [for them] to take,” said Charles Figley, distinguished professor of disaster mental health and director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University.

The toll is worse for a man-made disaster like the oil spill, according to his wife, Kathleen Figley, also a trauma authority.

“With a natural disaster, people plan for these,” she said. “At least there is awareness around an area of the [potential] disaster vulnerability, so people know what to expect [and] they can prepare for it.”

In this case, they said, the situation is complicated because the oil spill is an ongoing disaster, not a finite event like a hurricane.

Making matters worse, the possibility of a hurricane in the Gulf makes it difficult to transition people from disaster response to disaster recovery, in terms of their psychological well-being.

“We need them to be prepared for any type of natural disaster that could make this one even more of a disaster,” said Janet McGuire, disaster communications officer for the American Red Cross of Florida’s West Coast Region.

“If a hurricane becomes involved in the Gulf oil spill, then we are in trouble if the oil gets into homes, because we’ve never had to deal with that before,” she said.

Click here for more about the psychological impact of the oil spill on Florida Matters.

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