Psychologist: Oil Spill Worst Disaster in U.S. History

This photograph shows windrows of emulsified oil (bright orange) sprayed w/dispersant. The photo taken on April 26, 2010 as part of an aerial observation overflight. Credit NOAA.

With no end in sight to the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, attention is turning to the long-term consequences of the tragedy. While the ill effects on ecosystems, endangered wildlife and local economies are being extensively explored, one aspect is being dangerously overlooked: human mental health.

Psychologically speaking, the oil spill may be among the worst disasters in U.S. history, said Raymond Goldsteen, public health researcher at Stony Brook University in New York and author of "Demanding Democracy After Three Mile Island" (University Press of Florida, 1991).

While people far from the Gulf shores might feel somewhat unaffected by the oil slick, local residents face the immediate harsh realities of job loss and lifestyle changes. The fact that the spill is a man-made disaster, along with the possibility that the disaster could have been prevented, adds to the psychological trauma, experts say.

Different types of disasters

Not all disasters are created equally when it comes to mental health. "Severity really drives the [psychological] consequences," said Fran Norris, director and researcher at the National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire. But all other factors being equal, the type of disaster can exacerbate certain feelings and reactions in the affected population, Norris said.

Psychologists historically lump disasters into two categories: natural (hurricanes, earthquakes), or man-made (bombings, nuclear plant explosions).

The oil spill, while increasingly becoming a battle with the Earth, was undoubtedly caused by us humans. And man-made disasters are particularly hard for people to cope with, Goldsteen told LiveScience.

"This being the worst man-made disaster to hit the States," Goldsteen said, "we should not take lightly the mental health aspects of it. We can't expect people to just get over it. They need immediate help in the form of counseling — either peer counseling or professional counseling."

Why the cause matters

Natural disasters, no matter how terrible, are often viewed as normal events for a functioning planet (for instance, forest fires clearing trees as a process of renewal), and thus are usually easier to rebound from psychologically, Goldsteen said. There is a sense that it was somehow supposed to happen, he said.

But man-made disasters are viewed as outside the normal order of life and are thus more threatening to an individual's worldview, Goldsteen explained.

Rightly or wrongly, people worry more about health consequences, for themselves and their children, and have greater feelings of uncertainty after a man-made disaster. It also takes much longer for people to psychologically recover, he said.

"People looking at the oil in the marshes and all the damage … are thinking, 'This is not what is supposed to happen,'" Goldsteen said.

Relatively recently, disaster psychologists have started dividing man-made disasters into two categories: intentional (bombings, terrorist attacks) and technological (nuclear plant explosions, bridge collapses, oil spills).

While victims of intentional attacks often suffer severe psychological consequences, technological disasters can tear at the social fabric in more insidious ways.

Who do you trust?

Technological disasters highlight the long chain of strangers we all rely on for the health and safety of ourselves and loved ones, explained Goldsteen. This ranges from engineers, shift workers and safety inspectors to CEOs and policy makers.

A disaster such as the Gulf oil spill makes people wonder if their trust has been misplaced — a psychological shake-up that has far-reaching consequences, researchers say.

"Trust is part of a person's ability to frame the world for themselves," Goldsteen said. "[It determines] how we are going to deal with our everyday life."

Trust in institutions and the government becomes a critical player in the psychological aftermath of a disaster, he said. If people trust what they are being told, feel that authorities are taking adequate responsibility and believe an event is truly accidental, stress levels are abated somewhat.

"But, in the BP oil spill, if the valve that blew is attributed to poor management or people taking short cuts, that is worse for people's psychic outlooks," Goldsteen said.

When trust frays in the fabric of our interwoven communities, people become demoralized, he said.

Hopelessness, a prominent feature of demoralization, has been shown to increase the risk of suicide and cancer. Drug and alcohol abuse also become more prevalent, Goldsteen said. Some people withdraw from society, lose their appetites and/or feel mentally numb. Others become angry, increasing rates of intrapersonal violence.

And activism.

"Although we wish they wouldn't happen, some people will make good use of these events," Norris told LiveScience. "People can use events like this to call attention to problems and galvanize for change."

What the psychological effect of the oil spill will mean for offshore drilling, and Obama's presidency, remains to be seen.

Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.