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Mental toil suffered from oil

June 23, 2010

As oil continues to seep into the Gulf of Mexico, so too do psychological traumas seep into the minds of the residents, fishermen and shrimpers of the region. This oil catastrophe is more than just a disaster for the wildlife and beauty of the region — it is a prelude to what will be a long line of damaging mental health effects on the people of the surrounding area.

In President Obama’s June 15 speech addressing the spill, he said boldly, “We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessart to help the Gulf Coast and it’s people recover from this tragedy.”

If Obama is serious about his statements, then any recovery plan either the Obama administration or BP comes up with must contain BP-funded psychological counselling for the residents, shrimpers and fishermen affected by the tragedy.

In the past, dramatic ecological disasters have usually been followed by a significant increase in PTSD among residents of the area affected and people whose livelihoods depend upon the damaged area. In a June 21 Times article, Gulf shrimper Adam Trahan was quoted as saying, “I look out there and see my life ruined … I’m just walking around in a circle … I’ve never been this confused in my life.”

The article goes on to note that after the tragic Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989, Alaska saw a significant uptick in “suicides, domestic violence, bankruptcies and alcoholism.”

In his speech, Obama said, “The sadness and the anger that [the people affected by the spill] feel is not just about the money they’ve lost, it’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life might be lost … I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”

If BP does set aside funds to “compensate the workers,” failing to address the psychiatric issue would simply be ignoring half the problem. Once the damage done to the Gulf is subdued (however long that may take), who or what is going to repair the damage that same spill has done to the psyches of the fishermen, shrimpers and residents of the Gulf? The damages their consciences have sustained may be longer lasting than the damage suffered by the coast itself.

BP can buy sponges for coastal clean up workers to soak up the oil that has tainted the waters of the Gulf Coast, but just as important would be the funding of psychiatrists to essentially soak up the trauma that has seeped  into the minds of the shrimpers and fishermen whose lives have been radically altered by this disaster.

Even if the oil is removed from the coast (unlikely), if the damages left by the oil aren’t similarly wiped clean from the psyches of the Gulf coast workers, then progress still cannot be made.

Obama said, “Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of the region.”

It’s troubling that not only did Obama not cite the mental health factor as one of the long-term problems that must be grappled with, but he didn’t even cite it as an issue. The psychological trauma sustained by fishermen and shrimpers is just as devastating to the vibrancy of the Gulf Coast as the trauma sustained by the wildlife — and if either BP or the Obama administration doesn’t acknowledge that, no real progress can or will be made.

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