Surprising Psychological Consequences of the Gulf Oil Spill

In her “Depression On My Mind” blog at, writer Christine Stapleton draws attention to the mental health consequences of the BP Gulf Coast oil leak. There are several issues at play here. With any large-scale environmental and economic disaster, people in immediately impacted communities are prone to depression, anxiety, and stress in the months (and years) following the disaster. And in the case of the BP oil leak, Stapleton points out, many of the communities impacted are those that have still not recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But hurricanes and oil spills have different psychosocial impacts, says Stapleton, citing research by Steve Picou, a sociologist specializing in disasters. Picou’s work indicates that local and national responses to large disasters differ depending whether the disaster is natural or manmade. Natural disasters bring people together, he says, while manmade disasters do not. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, local communities came together to support one another; and the earthquake in Haiti elicited immediate international response, including massive high-profile fundraising efforts. But the BP oil leak (and past manmade disasters like Exxon Valdez) see a lot more blame, finger pointing, and mistrust—and little if any fundraising to help the victims, since that’s seen as the company’s obligation.

So in terms of mental health, says Stapleton, the BP disaster is problematic in three ways. Firstly, it creates all of the depression, anxiety, and stress that come with any disaster. Secondly, because it’s manmade, there is no reaction of “therapeutic community” to provide a sense of being in it together. And finally, there is no financial support for treatment of mental health fallout. Financially, BP is liable for cleanup, financial losses, property damage, and damage to natural resources, but it doesn’t have any obligation to cover “bodily injury,” which includes mental health. So people who are hardest hit by the disaster will be compensated financially, but given no financial support to seek therapy and counseling for dealing with the disaster’s consequences.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ross


    July 9th, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    I never thought of it this deeply. But you are spot on about whatever you have said here in this post. We need better laws to deal with such manmade disasters. And we need them quick.

  • Ric


    July 10th, 2010 at 5:31 AM

    Think about the thousands of people who are losing theri livelihoods over this catastrophe. Think about how it must feel to one day have a successful business and the next have no way to work, pay your bills, or take care of your famililes. Think about how debilitating this must make so many people who are dealing with this now feel. BP should have known better. They are big enough and rich enough to have had a better plan in mind for how to fix something like this. It is shameful just how negligent they have been and quite frankly how negligent they have been allowed to become, all in the name of saving a buck or two. And now look now at not only how many liveds have been ruined but the environmental impact as well. I fear that this region may not recover from this for a very long time to come.

  • clara


    July 10th, 2010 at 5:41 AM

    that’s very true.and to have a certain company responsible for all this and so little being done about it speaks volumes about how much our government is hand-in-glove with large corporations and about how little they are concerned about general citizens.

  • Sonya


    July 10th, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    It’s a shame that no-one is attending to the victims of the Gulf Oil spill with the same compassion as is aroused by natural disasters. Man-made or not, these events ruin lives and livelihoods. Let’s hope more attention is turned towards helping them put their lives back together in every way.

  • David G.

    David G.

    July 10th, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    Yes, absolutely! BP need to be held accountable but that will take time. Meanwhile the locals are struggling to keep their small business economy alive. I saw an article that had a photograph of their usually packed beautiful beaches. You could count on one hand how many people were using it. The beach itself was fine but no-one was coming. That alone has to be very stressful to those dependent upon tourism.

  • KJP


    July 11th, 2010 at 4:26 AM

    Yeah these things are much easier I think to accept when it is caused by a force of nature instead of something that could have been prevented and controlled. When a disaster like this comes about due to the negligence of others that is when the real anger comes in and is difficult to deal with and understand.

  • Gerrard


    July 11th, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    Manmade disasters not only lack the general /bringing together’ that natural ones provide,but also builds anger in the peoples minds against the authorities and the government,which is not dealing with the matter in the most appropriate manner!

  • Shelby


    July 11th, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    People are so focused on their anger at BP, which is rightly deserved, that they have lost sight of the folks that have been affected by the oil spill. The anger is blinding them and overpowering any other emotional response they may have felt that would have pushed them into taking compassionate action. Accountability is what’s at the forefront of their minds, unfortunately not helping those in need.

  • heather


    July 12th, 2010 at 3:12 AM

    a lot of people are talking about how BP should compensate for this and what it has to do and what the government has to do…but why isn’t anyone talking about how lax our rules actually are?
    prevention is always better than cure.and so,our rules regarding these kind of things should have been much better.this catastrophe and the impending issue just show how skewed our policies and their makers are towards corporations rather than the common good of the people.

  • Rob


    July 12th, 2010 at 4:17 AM

    surprising psychological impact? really? no one thought that this was going to make such a huge difference in the lives of those who live in the gulf region, who make this their home and their way to make a living? if that is the case then we are all way more short sighted than i had even thought before.

  • Gareth


    July 12th, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    That was a very insightful article from Christine Stapleton. I hadn’t noticed that on a conscious level until she addressed that difference. An excellent observation there! Thank you GoodTherapy for highlighting the piece.

  • Dexter


    July 12th, 2010 at 8:03 AM

    I know a guy that’s a deckhand on a fishing boat down there. Right now he has no job to go to and nothing on the horizon. He’s had to come back home to live with his parents because he can’t afford his living expenses any longer. That meant swallowing his pride, coming almost 700 miles to live in a town where he knows no-one anymore and leaving behind his friends and fiancee. It goes without saying that he’s depressed and scared of what the future holds because he’s done nothing else since he was a teenager. He has no experience in any other line of work. Where he’s living is inland. It’s not until you break it down and see disasters affecting real lives and real people that you get even the slightest sense of the devastation this spill has caused. There really needs to be a greater outpouring of public sympathy and help for guys like him as well as from the government. Cutting checks once in a while doesn’t cure all ills.

  • Star


    July 12th, 2010 at 6:38 PM

    We all know being out in nature soothes our spirits and enhances our connection with all living things that surround us. What about the effect of the terrible environmental impact too on the local people on that level? That natural beauty is lost and will take decades to recover. When I see images of those poor birds covered in oil, it breaks my heart. Corporate greed has a lot to answer for. It’s time we as a nation looked seriously at alternative energy sources for the sake of our beautiful landscapes as well as our spiritual wellbeing.

  • Sebastian


    July 12th, 2010 at 7:23 PM

    No matter what BP pays, it will never be enough to compensate for the loss of coastal beauty that has been eons in the making. Money cannot replace that. Can dollars create again what the winds and the waves have on those shores-gradually, grain by grain of shifting sands, crafted by the ebb and flow of the tides and the life within that? No they cannot.

  • Simon L.

    Simon L.

    July 15th, 2010 at 4:28 PM

    I can’t bear to think of how this spill will affect the food chain too. Consider this: the fish that are lucky enough to survive the spill and unlucky enough to be caught have been swimming in those toxic waters. We’ll be eating them. Who knows what we’ll be ingesting and what those fish have absorbed? I don’t think we’ve even touched on that subject.

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