August 3, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped and may soon be “killed” for good, but fixing the widespread damage from the disaster will take years. The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has has released a report (supported by the Children’s Health Fund) based on a survey of 1,200 residents of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. Their findings give a sense of how widespread the spill’s impacts are on physical, mental, and financial health:

Over one-third of parents reported that their children had experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

One in five households has seen their income decrease as a result of the oil spill, and eight percent have lost jobs. Only five percent of coastal residents reported having received any cash or gift cards from BP, although over fifteen percent believe they may be eligible for compensation from BP for health consequences of the spill.

Over one-quarter of coastal residents think they may have to move from the area because of the oil spill.

Much the way Hurricane Katrina had its greatest effect on those populations with the fewest economic resources, the Deepwater oil spill has also had its greatest impact among those with the least. Coastal residents earning less than $25,000 annual household income were more likely to report having lost income than those earning more, more likely to think they would have to move, more likely to report an effect on children’s ability to play on the coast or in the Gulf waters, and more likely to report physical and mental health effects among their children.

BP is supposed to compensate coastal residents for economic losses resulting from the spill, but what about the emotional toll of the disaster? The New York Times’ Shaila Dewan follows up on that question:

Kenneth Feinberg, who is administering the BP claims process, has said mental health claims will not be covered. BP is considering requests from Mississippi and Louisiana for $39 million to cover mental health treatment through October 2011.

… Physical health problems will be covered under the claims process, a spokesman for BP said.

As I wrote back in June, researchers studying the effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska found that residents living or working closest to the spill had a greater likelihood of suffering from depression and anxiety. One study of fishermen reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD among those living in the Prince William Sound area – and that study was conducted six years after the tanker ran aground.

There’s no way BP can erase the effects of the past 3+ months worth of anxiety. They should at least make sure that Gulf residents can get mental health care to ease the process of rebuilding their lives.

3 thoughts on “Will BP Pay for the Spill’s Toll on Mental Health?

  1. No.
    Where does it stop? BP needs to clean up the spill, needs to make the environment right again the best it can, and needs to address the needs of those who are DIRECTLY affected in their livelihood by the spill. I hear all this handwringing about the nail salon owners in the gulf who aren’t getting business because housewives are depressed, and they can’t get compensation, and I really don’t feel bad for them.
    I know that mental healthcare is hard to get and expensive in the US, especially in rural areas. This serves to underline that problem, and if we decide we care this much, perhaps we ought to lobby the government to put our tax dollars towards mental healthcare so that people can get meds and therapy at reasonable prices…or do we only care about mental health when there’s a sense of self-righteousness and a piece of the corporate kitty to be claimed?*

    Finally, why do I not see anyone demanding that Goldman Sachs pay for their mental healthcare? Their ilk have caused much more pain and suffering and anxiety over the last few years than BP! I got laid off two years ago! It was traumatic! I was depressed! PAY ME! Does anyone know their claims number?

    *and everyone who is within six degrees of separation from the gulf is demanding a piece of the corporate kitty, this being an example.

  2. Whilst I think BP were guilty of cutting corners I think every single one of us who drives a car are part of the problem; no oil company has a completely clean record.
    Whether it’s months or years another company will be party to a worse problem and then they’ll be the bad guys but really the enemy is us – every time we drive our cars.

  3. I think if there was a way of reliably quantifying the costs of mental health care associated with the oil spill then BP should be responsible. However, while it’s been pretty clearly established that oil spills are associated with mental health effects, I’m not sure the costs could be quantified in a way that would stand up in court. The structure of the US health care system makes it even more difficult, since you almost need to figure out the effects of the oil spill on an individual basis to know who should get the money. Maybe in a single-payer health care system it would be more feasible.

    Tamakazura I don’t see Goldman Sachs being the same thing – the recession wasn’t solely due to a single company, making it even harder to attribute blame, whereas the oil spill is clearly attributable to BP (and to a lesser extent its partners in the well).

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