Part of that project will explore the role of culture in the
women’s health. New Orleans, for instance, is home to large
African-American and Vietnamese populations as well as
Cajuns, among other groups. The extent to which people feel
they do or do not “belong” within their community’s culture
has previously been linked to chronic stress, Lichtveld says. She
hopes to understand how cultural factors affect both individual
and community resilience following a disaster like the oil spill.
It’s a question that intrigues other researchers as well.
“We talk about community as if we know what that means,”
says Croisant. “In reality there are thousands of communities
Fortunately, the researchers have help in understanding
those diverse populations. They work closely with numerous
community partners, including mental health agencies, social
service agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches. Those
partnerships have allowed researchers to develop projects
that address the communities’ most pressing concerns. Just
as important, the connections allow the investigators to share
information that can directly improve residents’ well-being.
“Our observation is that very few people have adequate
access to health care and in most cases virtually no access to
mental health care,” Croisant says. “It’s important that when we
leave, community groups can use that information to advocate
for better access to those services.”
For instance, in the course of their research, Grattan and her
colleagues identified a community with high rates of intimate
partner violence and another with a spike in suicidal thoughts
and attempts among high school students. Community
partners are now using those data to apply for funding to target
those specific issues, Grattan says.
The oil spill research will also help communities better
prepare for the health impacts of future disasters. By
contributing to that evidence base, Lichtveld says, “we can do
what public health is all about — prevention.”
NIEHS funding for the project will continue through 2016,
and much of the research data are still being analyzed. Still, it’s
not too early to draw one big conclusion, says Lichtveld. “The
health of the ecosystem is inextricably linked to the health of
the community. You can’t separate the two.” n
Kirsten Weir is a journalist in Minneapolis.