Depression, Mental Distress, and Domestic Conflict among Louisiana Women Exposed to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the WaTCH Study

By Rung, Ariane L.; Gaston, Symielle et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Depression, Mental Distress, and Domestic Conflict among Louisiana Women Exposed to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the WaTCH Study


Rung, Ariane L., Gaston, Symielle, Oral, Evrim, Robinson, William T., Fontham, Elizabeth, Harrington, Daniel J., Trapido, Edward, Peters, Edward S., Environmental Health Perspectives


Introduction

An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on 20 April 2010 killed 11 people and caused almost 5 million barrels of oil to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill covered 68,000 square miles of land and sea and triggered a response effort involving the use of nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant chemicals (U.S. Coast Guard 2011). Considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DHOS) resulted in widespread environmental and economic damage, the exact nature of which is only beginning to be understood.

In the wake of the DHOS, the Institute of Medicine called for research to generate evidence about the psychological and behavioral effects of oil spills (Institute of Medicine 2010). Previous disaster research has shown that psychological sequelae are among the most pronounced effects, with problems such as post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and nonspecific distress figuring prominently in the literature (Acierno et al. 2007; Adams et al. 2006; Amstadter et al. 2009; Cerda et al. 2013; DiGrande et al. 2011; Galea et al. 2007, 2008; Norris et al. 2002; Ruggiero et al. 2009). Disasters involving oil spills specifically have resulted in emotional consequences to people who live in the vicinity and rely on the affected areas for their economic and nutritional livelihoods (Lyons et al. 1999). For example, 1 year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS), higher prevalences of generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression were observed among the most highly exposed residents (Palinkas et al. 1993b). Individuals living in areas exposed to the 1996 Sea Empress oil spill were at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and worse mental health than individuals living in control areas (Lyons et al. 1999). Similarly, individuals exposed to the 2002 Prestige oil spill had an increased likelihood of reporting suboptimal scores in mental health (Carrasco et al. 2007; Sabucedo et al. 2010).

Early observations of psychological and economic harm immediately following the DHOS have also been reported (Buttke et al. 2012; Osofsky et al. 2011), with striking similarities in resultant health effects noted between the DHOS and previous spills (Gill et al. 2012). A 2011 survey conducted by the Gulf State Population Survey (GSPS) revealed that direct exposure to the oil spill itself was the most important determinant of mental health (Fan et al. 2015). Grattan et al. (2011) observed that greater spill-associated income loss was associated with greater depression, anxiety, and other mental health outcomes. Gill et al. (2012) reported that Alabama residents with greater exposure to the oil, greater economic loss, and commercial ties to natural resources also experienced higher levels of psychological stress. Reports of anxiety disorder, 14 or more mentally unhealthy days in the previous month, and stress about having enough money to pay for housing or food were also high (Gill et al. 2012). A report on behavioral health following the DHOS documented an increase in major depressive episodes, thoughts of suicide, and suicide plans from pre- to post-oil spill among persons 18-25 years old across the Gulf region [Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (SAMSHA/ CDC) 2013]. A study of female partners of oil spill cleanup workers revealed a higher prevalence of depression among those who had more physical contact with the oil and an increase in the number of domestic partner fights among those with both greater physical contact and economic exposure to the DHOS (Rung et al. 2015).

Experiences of domestic conflict and interpersonal violence among women have been associated with hurricane disasters (Anastario et al. 2009; Harville et al. 2011; Larrance et al. 2007) as well as with oil spills (Osofsky et al. 2010; Palinkas et al. 1993a). For example, the percentage of women reporting psychological victimization increased significantly from 34% before Hurricane Katrina to 45% after the storm, and hurricane-related stressors were a significant predictor of this increase (Schumacher et al. …

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