In April 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Over the next
five months, the damaged well spewed more than 200 million
gallons of oil into the Gulf. That oil washed up on more than
600 miles of shoreline.
Fisheries were closed and tourism suffered, dealing an
economic blow to Gulf Coast communities. Four years on, the
economic and environmental effects linger. Psychologists are
among those scrutinizing the mental health and behavioral
effects of the disaster.
As part of the Deepwater Horizon Research Consortium,
research groups at Louisiana State University, Tulane University,
the University of Florida and the University of Texas Medical
Branch at Galveston are studying the recovery and resiliency of
individuals and communities affected by the spill. The five-year,
$25.2 million program is funded by the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Unsurprisingly, a number of those projects center around
physical health; as millions of barrels of oil spread through the
Gulf, residents worried about the safety of the seafood they ate
and the air they breathed. But it was clear from the outset that
mental health was also at risk.
“We believe the biggest health impacts of the oil spill have
been psychological,” says Lynn Grattan, PhD, a psychologist
at the University of Maryland who is leading a project for the
University of Florida team to examine the recovery of Gulf
Coast residents after the spill.
Lost income, increased distress
The consortium projects are ongoing, but Grattan’s group
has published findings that support her point. She and her
colleagues compared mental health outcomes in two fishing
communities: Baldwin County, Alabama, which was directly
exposed to spilled oil, and Franklin County, Florida, which was
indirectly affected though it never saw oil on its shores.
Both communities had sharply elevated levels of anxiety
and depression after the tragedy, Grattan’s team found. During
the spill, between one-third and half of the population met the
criteria for clinical depression — notably higher than the 10
percent to 11 percent base rate expected in those communities,
she says (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011).
That high rate of depression persisted a year after the spill.
Two years post-spill, about 20 percent of the population was
still depressed. It wasn’t until three years after the spill that
depression levels dropped back to near baseline, she says.
Loss of income was the biggest driver of mental health
problems, Grattan and her colleagues found ( Transactions of
the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 2013).
Among people with spill-related income loss, more than 83
percent experienced clinically significant depression one year
after the spill, and more than 89 percent experienced clinically
It wasn’t only fisheries and tourism companies that suffered
financially in the aftermath of the spill, says Grattan. “There was
a snowball effect where local restaurants, stores, transportation
and other areas of income were also disrupted,” she says.
Higher levels of bitterness and anger were also associated
After the spill
Researchers study the lingering effects of the BP oil spill.
BY KIRSTEN WEIR