Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

PTSD and the Gulf Oil Spill

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

PTSD and the Gulf Oil Spill

Article excerpt

Awareness and treatment strategies for posttraumatic stress disorder should be at the forefront of mental health care in the Gulf states. After all, the Gulf oil spill is now ranked as the greatest man-made disaster this country has ever seen.

Usually, PTSD occurs as a result of a severe emotional trauma from an event that is life threatening. It often occurs in the wake of military combat, violent personal assault, kidnapping, torture, incarceration, and/or man-made or natural disasters. PTSD often leads to a combination of symptoms, including depression, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, anger, irritability, severe generalized anxiety, and sleep disturbance. It's clear that for the residents of the Gulf, the BP oil spill qualifies as such an event.

The ecological disaster has turned upside down the lives of thousands people in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. For some charter boat owners, fishermen, shrimpers, hotel workers and owners, individuals in the tourist industry, and even owners of jet ski rentals, this calamity will be a turning point in their lives. People are losing their livelihoods.

With a loss of livelihood often comes a loss of mental health. I worry that this traumatic experience--especially just a few short years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, will lead to PTSD--not only among the vulnerable, but among those without previous mental health issues.

A few months ago, I wrote a column focusing on the mental health effects of the earthquake that upended the lives of the people of Haiti ("Mental Health and Haiti," April 2010, p. 7). Certainly, PTSD, as well as other mental disorders, is commonly seen after a disaster as enormous as the Haitian earthquake. As one study of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks shows, the resulting trauma often lasts long after the event (J. Clin. Psychiatry 2005;66:231-7).

Unlike Haiti, we do have a well-developed mental health system in the United States, which means that we should be prepared to offer strategic care for those who might be suffering and at risk. However, as in Haiti, a rich and distinct culture exists in the Gulf area. Just as mental health professionals must be careful to respect Haitian culture while delivering services, we must do the same in the Gulf as we educate people about and treat PTSD.

Not only are Gulf residents at risk of developing PTSD, but too often, survivors of these kinds of disasters fall into alcohol and substance abuse, which end up exacerbating the mental problems.

PTSD has some obvious signs and symptoms but can sometimes be hidden. …

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