In this study we examined the effects of community oil exposure (direct, indirect) and income loss with respect to acute psychological distress, coping, resilience, and perceived risk after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. As hypothesized, during the spill, people living in a Gulf Coast community with indirect impact had elevated levels of anxiety and depression similar to those of people living in communities where oil reached their shores. When participants were divided by spill-related income loss, the expected differences in psychological distress emerged. People who suffered income losses as a result of the spill reported significantly more tension/anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion, and overall mood disturbance than their income-stable counterparts. The income loss group also had a higher rate of clinically elevated depression scores than any other study group. In summary, these data highlight the potentially profound psychological impact the Deepwater Horizon disaster had on coastal communities with indirect impact, particularly if they sustained economic loss.
Mechanisms of adjustment such as coping strategy and resilience are often viewed as buffers to the psychological impacts of stressful life events. In our study, the income loss group was more likely than the stable income group to use behavioral disengagement (giving up) as a coping strategy. Disengaging from coping efforts and other avoidant strategies has been associated previously with adverse psychological outcomes after disasters, including oil spills (Arata et al. 2000
; Silver et al. 2002
). The lowest resilience scores were also found in persons who sustained income loss and did not appear to be associated with baseline history of depression or anxiety. Resilience refers to the qualities that enable one to thrive despite adversity (Campbell-Sills and Stein 2007
; Connor and Davidson 2003
). It implies an inner strength thought to be protective against the development of psychiatric disorder (Rutter 1987
). Income decline has been associated with reduced resilience and persistent psychological symptoms after disaster (Bonanno et al. 2007
), thus suggesting that people with spill-related income loss might have fewer psychological resources for bouncing back.
Economic resource loss, socioeconomic adversity, and/or loss of job opportunities have been associated with course of depression, number of PTSD symptoms, or psychological distress after other disasters, including the Sierra Madre earthquake (California), Hurricane Hugo (South Carolina), and the 9/11 New York City terrorist attacks (Bonanno et al. 2006
; Freedy et al. 1992
; Kaniasty and Norris 1995
; Nandi et al. 2009
). Six years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Arata et al. (2000)
examined economic resource loss within the context of a broader, conservation-of-resources stress model (Hobfoll 1989
). They found resource loss (having to sell possessions) to be significantly correlated with anxiety, depression, and PTSD in commercial fishers after the Exxon Valdez spill (Arata et al. 2000
). Socioeconomic factors such as income loss may have a profound impact on psychological adjustment and adaptation after oil spills.
With regard to perceived risk, both exposure groups and economic resource groups in the present study had similarly high levels of worry about the impact of the spill on the environment, human health, and seafood safety. Therefore, any direct relationship between environmental worry and acute psychological distress could not be examined. During the acute event, participants considered television and newspapers the most reliable source of human health information. People who sustained income loss were more likely to turn to the local fishermen and the department of health for their information. Meanwhile, BP was found to be a reliable source of information by the directly exposed community.
The primary limitations of this study are sample size and sampling procedures, which may have led to sampling biases. The indirect impact group was larger, older, better educated, and included more women than the comparison group (which focused on persons working directly on the water). The collective and acute nature of disaster creates a unique challenge for community-based public health research. During this real-time assessment of psychological distress, our community partners, who were also community leaders, were deeply entrenched in other disaster- related matters. This precluded the implementation of labor-intensive, systematic sampling procedures. Within the context of this research model, we used the best available recruitment methods to assemble the participant samples. The absence of preexposure data and the cross-sectional approach represent additional limitations that preclude the ability to directly establish a causal relationship between the oil spill and distress of community members.
Impacts of oil spills extend beyond communities where oil reaches the shoreline. This underscores the need to extend public health education and outreach, psychological monitoring, and mental health services beyond the direct spill areas. From a mental health perspective, people at risk of income loss comprise a particularly vulnerable population. Therefore, this group should be specifically targeted for financial counseling and support, alternative employment opportunities, and psychological interventions. These interventions need to be immediately available in the communities where the impacted individuals live.
PTSD is the most often studied and most frequent and debilitating psychological disturbance that occurs after disasters (Galea et al. 2005
). Longitudinal studies are needed to examine the range of factors associated with the development and/or persistence of PTSD or related disorders from the acute phase of psychological reactivity. Income loss, as well as other socioeconomic factors, should be considered in predictive models. Most people who are exposed to disasters do not develop PTSD or other chronic debilitating psychological conditions. Therefore, research on the factors associated with normal, adaptive recovery to disaster is also indicated. Subsequently, we could better identify target groups for varying levels of support or interventions. Finally, use of a community-based participatory model enabled the development of a sustainable community–academic relationship dedicated to improving the public health of participating oil spill communities.