No End in Sight

The Gulf Coast oil spill’s mental health fallout

Posted Jun 30, 2010

Already a tragedy of insurmountable proportions, the Gulf Coast oil spill has taken another shocking turn, from being a man-made disaster with far-reaching, tangible impacts to a regional psychological health crisis with, quite literally, no end in sight.

Last week, William Allen Kruse, called "Rookie" by friends, died by suicide aboard his eponymous boat. According to all reports, Kruse was a popular, respected, and well-loved fishing boat captain who had recently taken a job cleaning up the oil spill.

How has the oil spill led to suicide?

"Living on the Gulf Coast has become a trial that many of us could not have imagined several years ago," said Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in a USA Today article. The article went on: "For many in the area, that has been counteracted by strong identification with their community. But the destruction of habitats that supported fishing, oystering and other ways of life can affect some of that resilience."

"No crisis arrives on people's doorstep with them being totally prepared and having no vulnerability - many, many people have stresses that they battle in their daily lives and they hold it together," psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow said in a article. "Then, when a big crisis arrives, particularly one that threatens one's economic well-being and sense of self - it can take someone from coping to feeling completely unable to cope."

"Simply losing your job can lead an individual into depression," Ablow said. "So, job loss in a seemingly unstoppable calamity will affect millions of people's mental health for many years to come."

The effects on fishermen seem the most direct - these are the people who are now out of jobs, indefinitely. But, there are also effects on the families of fishermen, who depend on the income of the summer fishing season to buy basic necessities.

A reporter attended a support group for wives of fishermen, giving voice to some of the fears of these women. The names of the women were changed for the article, so I'll preserve the names for this post.

As I held back tears and pushed through to the end of the article, two quotes stood out to me:

Tammy: "You can't prepare for what you don't know. But I can tell you right now that we need toilet paper."

Donna: "I feel like if I could just get structure back in my life, I could do it. Every time I start to get structure, something else happens. I hope I figure it out before the next disaster. But now I feel like we'll never get there."

Toilet paper isn't a given worldwide, but it's a basic need many of us have come to expect. When your basic needs can't be met, and it's unclear if or when they will (and, if, like Tammy, you're 8 months pregnant and living in a disaster zone), it's hard to look more than a foot or so in front of you. Yet, the ability to plan, to predict, to prepare is part of feeling like there's some control in life, part of what makes us feel that we can trust that our place in the world is secure.

In crisis, when things are all but secure, one can feel hopeless. And hope is what keeps us going, especially at the most difficult of times.

My sincerest best wishes and hope go to those who are struggling through this disaster.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved