Survey: 30 percent on Gulf Coast Suffer From Mental Illness in Wake of Oil Spill


NEW ORLEANS — The oil spill ravaging the Gulf of Mexico has inflicted widespread psychological distress among coastal residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, etching scars even deeper than those whipped by Hurricane Katrina, according to a survey by Ochsner Health System, a nonprofit, academic healthcare delivery system.

The survey of the four-state area, the first to measure mental health impacts after the explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast on April 20, found three in every 10 people surveyed (30 percent) suffer from “probable serious” or “probable mild-moderate” mental illness, based on the K6 psychological distress scale. The percentage of those suffering from serious mental illness varied, depending on location: Louisiana: 18 percent; Mississippi: 12 percent; Florida: 14 percent; Alabama: 10 percent.

The percentage of Louisiana respondents afflicted with serious mental illness is double what it was among South Louisiana residents in July 2007, two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the state.

“To see so many people mired in psychological misery and in worse shape than they were after Katrina is disheartening,” said Dr. Joseph E. Bisordi, M.D., FACP, Ochsner’s chief medical officer. “This benchmark identifies the need for mental health services throughout the region. So that coastal residents can more quickly reclaim their lives, our region needs the immediate support of BP and the federal government to fund mental health resources. We cannot afford to delay any further.”

The younger respondents and those most financially vulnerable are at greatest peril for the mental health impacts of the calamitous spill, which has fouled fishing grounds, beaches and wetlands by gushing more than 92 million gallons into the Gulf, based on federal estimates.

The lowest income category (less than $25,000 annually) has the largest percentage (32 percent) of respondents classified as having probable serious mental illness. In contrast, only 2 percent of respondents whose annual incomes are more than $100,000 have the same classification.

Gulf Coast residents reported the most stress from money problems (34 percent) and work issues (19 percent), while relationship difficulties, substance abuse and missed appointments with mental health professionals added to their woes during the ongoing disaster.

Younger respondents (21-44 years old) more frequently reported that they are stressed by money (40 percent) and work (33 percent). And 22 percent of younger respondents likely suffer from serious mental illness.

“There’s no doubt that the oil spill has visited psychological torment among Gulf Coast communities,” said Dr. Bisordi. “Life has changed completely for many. Fishing, for instance, is a way of life for a lot of residents, a backbone of our coastal economy. But a fishing ban in much of the Gulf has disrupted livelihoods as people fear the oil will contaminate fish, shrimp and oysters.”

Nearly two of every five surveyed (37 percent) said they were “sad” or “depressed” at least a little of the time during the past 30 days.

“You can scrub the sand, and you can skim the sea,” said Dr. Bisordi, “But psychological pain sinks much deeper. It will stay embedded in people, unless we give them relief.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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