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Our sea, our shores, our psyche: Many reeling after gulf disaster

Matt Shipp feels the stress all over. As the new owner of a restaurant along the oil-stained Alabama coast, he doesn't know if his business will survive the summer. At home, his 10-year-old daughter, Kamila, worries her family — who came to Orange Beach from Mobile eight months ago — might have to move again.

"We uprooted our lives, changed schools, which is stressful enough," says Shipp, 42, who opened Shipp's Harbour Grill in October. "Now we're questioning whether we're going to survive."

Shipp is far from alone.

"The psychological impact is tremendous. I see it bearing down on people every single day," said Joey Ward, another restaurant owner and a lifelong resident of the Alabama coast.

Much has been said about the environmental, medical and financial impact of the BP oil spill. Now residents and experts say the spill also is exacting a serious emotional toll on people who live — and make their living — by the gulf. Even people who haven't seen the first drop of oil stain their shores are feeling the strain.

History shows that living through large-scale disasters can lead to dangerously high stress, anxiety and depression, along with increases in substance abuse and domestic violence.

J. Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama, saw all those consequences in the months and years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, which he has studied extensively.

"We documented those characteristics for as long as 20 years after the spill," said Picou, who plans another research trip to Alaska next year. "They don't go away."

• • •

Picou, who also lives in Orange Beach, sees many similarities in how people are reacting to the BP disaster and what he observed in Alaska.

"People are angry, distracted, worried. They're having a hard time coming to grips with the reality of the situation," he said. "We're seeing the first indicators of the mental health impacts here."

In Alaska, Picou documented spill-related depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with alcohol and drug abuse, especially in people who lived in towns closest to the spill and most directly tied to the fishing industry.

Picou noted that four years after the spill, the former mayor of the small fishing town Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agencies are tracking symptoms that could be related to breathing, swallowing or touching the oil, which can include headache, nausea, vomiting and skin problems, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

But Picou and others say officials should also be paying close attention to symptoms of psychological problems. They say health officials should be reaching out to gulf residents, because many of them either may not recognize they need help or might be reluctant to seek it.

One issue: Women are generally more willing to seek medical and psychological help. As a result, Patrick Marsh, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida, said women are more likely to be diagnosed with stress and anxiety disorders and get appropriate treatment. But men are more likely to turn to drinking, drugs and even violence.

"The worse the disaster,'' he said, "the worse the symptoms tend to be."

• • •

Maybe you live far from the spill, don't know anyone who's near it and have no reason to worry about your financial future.

But if the spill has you so distressed you cannot hold back your tears and rage, you are not alone.

Michelle Simoneaux sees it a lot in the people who come to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. There are no oily birds to clean in Pinellas County, but people are turning up anyway.

"People are coming in and sitting down on our couch and crying," said Simoneaux, the sanctuary's spokeswoman. "People are coming in furious, asking why we're not doing more. . . . Of course, people are furious at BP."

Two or three people are staffing the sanctuary these days, just to listen to those who need to vent. "We're counseling," she said. "They stay and they talk for an hour. This has been very time-consuming for us."

Larry Mastry, a lifelong fisherman who co-owns Mastry's Bait and Tackle in St. Petersburg, said the uncertainty of the spill — how much worse will it get? will the oil come here? — is causing enormous stress among local anglers, including him.

"It's almost like an approaching hurricane," he said. "It's that same feeling."

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Richard Martin can be reached at or (727) 893-8330.


Take care of yourself

The American Psychological Association offers these tips to help deal with the emotional fallout of the BP oil spill:

. Make connections: Reach out to close family members and friends, who can be a source of strength. Coming together and helping one another can be positive for your emotional health.

. Try to maintain a hopeful outlook: Know that scientists, environmentalists and other experts are working on solutions.

. Volunteer: Contributing your energy and talent to a cause you feel passionate about — the environment, conservation — can help lessen feelings of powerlessness.

Our sea, our shores, our psyche: Many reeling after gulf disaster 06/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 3:18pm]
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