Oil spill exacts collective mental health toll

By Nan Shnitzler
August 21st, 2010

Direct mental health effects of the Gulf oil spill appear to be scarce in New England, but that doesn’t mean there is no psychological impact.

On an individual basis, such an unnatural event can elicit a host of fears and concerns and dramatize how much in the world is out of our control, says psychiatrist Keith Ablow, M.D., an assistant professor at Tufts Medical School.

“This breach in the earth’s surface can speak to people who lost loved ones to uncontrollable cancer, it can reawaken a sense of helplessness as the economy makes their lives messy and anyone who is given to anxiety and obsessive thinking about control might be more at risk,” Ablow says.

Still, most people go about their daily lives “graced by a level of denial” to threats such as illness, terrorism or even death, he says. But the relentless media depictions of the social and environmental devastation in the Gulf are hard to deny.

“That’s why I think this spill is toxic psychologically, too. We don’t expect to see birds covered with oil and beaches fouled with petroleum. We’re not equipped to screen this out,” Ablow says. “For those who can, I’d wonder what else they’ve learned not to look at.”

But there’s a collective toll as well. Lise Van Susteren, M.D., a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. who sits on the advisory board of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, says the oil spill is fouling the national mood.

“Just because people in New England are not reporting oil spill-related effects doesn’t mean the constant pounding of that uncontrollable dark force extinguishing life and ruining business doesn’t equal horribly deep dark feelings of helplessness and anger at our vulnerability,” Van Susteren says.

For others, though, it evokes feelings of despair.

“They lose steam, lose hope, and become paralyzed or don’t make changes that could help them have better lives. It’s a Zeitgeist,” she says. “We have a national mood just like we have an individual mood and sometimes it’s exceedingly difficult to see how events around us affect us.”

Kermit Crawford, Ph.D., director of the Center for Multicultural Mental Health at Boston University School of Medicine, describes a litany of challenges, including behavioral health ones, the Gulf area will be forced to cope with for years to come. But he thinks the most significant effect on New Englanders could be more sensitivity to the fact that such a disaster could happen here and how to best prepare for it.

“Because people were reassured for so long that the technology was sound, there’s a heightened level of vigilance now,” Crawford says.

None of Sarah Conn’s patients have mentioned the oil spill specifically, but she still thinks it’s affecting people. At the Psychologists for Social Responsibility conference in Boston this past July, Conn asked workshop participants, who were mental health professionals, about their responses to the oil spill.

“It was very intense. People felt horror, fear, grief, fury, empathy for the people directly affected and disappointment in our leaders. And some people noticed themselves shutting down because it was too much to take in,” says Conn, Ph.D., an ecopsychologist in Arlington, Mass.

She says the key is for people to be invited to express their reactions to environmental disasters to counter the typical way our society handles emotions, with consumption – of food, drugs, clothes, cars – that only worsens our dependence on oil.

For Conn, the antidote is community engagement that enables people to not just talk about ecoanxiety but to do something with others, even something as simple as picking up litter or weeding a community garden.

Ablow suggests therapists use the oil spill to probe feelings of helplessness, depression or anxiety. Particularly now that the underwater well has been capped, they can point out that things are indeed containable over time.

Van Susteren says mental health professionals have a moral obligation to combat climate change. She implores them to be mindful of the psychological aspects and to model responsible energy-saving behavior. Further, they should be aware that the downstream effects of climate change on unstable, developing countries are a significant security issue to the United States, whose per-capita carbon emissions are the highest in the world.

“We should be proselytizing and taking advantage of the special relationship we have with the psyches of people who can collectively and sometimes individually make a difference,” Van Susteren says. “That’s our call to action.”

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