Tag Archives: Exxon Valdez

Can Social Media aid mental health recovery after the BP Oil Spill?

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - MODIS/Aqua Detai...

Image by SkyTruth via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

When a disaster occurs people organize themselves to help recover and this helps the community heal, not just tangibly, but according to mental health professionals, intangibly as well, with mental health recovery. Increasingly, social media are being used to help in that regard. For example, just this week in the aftermath of students being held hostage by another student for many hours at a high school in Marinette, Wisconsin, a facebook page was launched in order to “to get the high school students back together as a community … and to help move forward.”  We also reported on this blog about similar efforts after the Boulder, Colorado wilfires.

However, this phenomenon does not seem to be playing out in the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill along the gulf coast. According to experts interviewed for an interesting story on NRP this week entitled: BP Oil Spill Scars similar to Exxon Valdez,  man-made technological disasters such as DeepWater Horizon and Exxon Valdez can literally alter the way a community functions.

“It’s almost like Exxon Valdez fast-forward,” says Steven Picou, an environmental sociologist at the University of South Alabama. Picou has spent the past 20 years tracking the mental health fallout around Prince William Sound.”In Alaska, the communities up there were blindsided,” he says. “They did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started and the divorces started and the domestic violence became acute in the communities.” Picou is seeing the same problems now on the Gulf Coast, even sooner than they surfaced after the Exxon Valdez spill. In Alaska, he says, there were seven suicides starting about four years after the spill. He says at least two suicides have been linked to distress over the BP oil spill. In response, the Red Cross, houses of worship and mental health providers have stepped up counseling and outreach. Picou is training “peer listeners” — people ready to identify oil spill-related stress and help their families and neighbors cope.

In fact, after digging around, I haven’t really found an organic organization offering that same kind of “moving-together-as-a-community” mentality that you see after most natural disasters. Of course traditional groups such as the American Red Cross are providing services, but it seems telling that the only type of groups to spontaneously form are ones offering heavy doses of vitriol pointed at either BP, the government or both.

The group on the left is still around after protesting the spill, but doesn’t offer any “hey, let’s get together and help each other” information. The NPR story, explained why this might be the case:

“Therapist Pam Maumenee, who is on the oil spill crisis team at AltaPointe Health Systems in Bayou La Batre, Ala., says natural disasters tend to build helping, therapeutic communities.

‘Everybody comes out after a hurricane. You clean up. You bond together,’ Maumenee says. But the opposite is true of a man-made disaster like the oil spill,’ she says. ‘What you see are families against families, brothers against sisters, neighbors against neighbors,’ she says. ‘The community becomes quite corrosive. There have been battles over who got lucrative contracts to work the BP cleanup and who didn’t. And there’s growing resentment over the claims process in the community.”

As a profound example of this one need only look at the facebook pages of spontaneous groups such as the one highlighted above from the oil spill, and contrast that with a facebook page from a natural disaster, such as the Fourmile Wildfire near Boulder, Colorado. The Fourmile page is devoted to the firefighers, and months after the event they are still active in organizing benefits for affected community members. Instead of an ugly picture of the fire, they’ve chosen nice pic of the downtown area for their page.

Officials pages exist, of course, including a page by HHS specifically for mental health complete with 30 second videos by the Surgeon General. CDC has its own Mental Health web page and “peer listening” has been implemented, according to the NRP story.

This is not an effort to measure government, established NGOs, or even BP’s performance with regard to addressing mental health issues, many other are doing that. But I think I did find some evidence that what Ms. Maumenee indicated seems to be true: there didn’t seem to be any organically formed “therapeutic communities” in the social media arena. If you know of some, please comment.