Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trauma in Slow Motion from the Gulf Oil Leak

It has been a month since the Deepwater Horizon oil well started spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  A few days ago word came that they had managed to start capturing some of the oil, but they haven't managed to stop the spewing -- this is a temporary solution.  Now part of the spill appears to be rounding Florida and heading up the east coast.

A critical incident is usually defined as any event which has the potential to overwhelm usual coping skills and cause significant distress and impairment.  A trauma is a deeply emotionally or physically distressing event.  While it's not part of the definitions, the events that tend to be identified as critical incidents or traumas are also very sudden.  The suddenness is often part of what overwhelms us.  It all happens so fast that we don't have time to process things as they happen.

Aside from the folks on the oil rig that exploded itself, this spill is not a sudden event.  There was plenty of time between when the well started leaking and when the oil started to impact people's lives on shore.  No one in Louisiana, for example, was killed or maimed by the sudden oil spill that came out of nowhere.  Folks on the east coast, who may be about to be impacted, have plenty of time to prepare. 

So is this a critical incident? Is it a trauma?  I think, for at least a subset of the population, it is.  There is a reason that suddenness is not part of the official definitions.  If you think about it, there are other traumas that are not sudden.  People may know for days or even weeks, for example, that a hurricane is headed their way.  That time to prepare may mitigate the impact of the storm, but the storm still can be traumatic -- just look at Hurricane Katrina.  Traumatic incidents can also happen over a long period of time, as happens with childhood abuse.  Critical incidents don't have to come out of nowhere.

Returning to the oil spill, if you are a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, the fact that when the well started leaking you knew you were in big trouble didn't help a whole lot.  If your livelihood has been wiped out by this disaster over the last month, it is relatively little consolation that it was oil contaminating the ocean over a few weeks rather than, say, a sudden storm that destroyed your boat.  You did not start the year expecting this to happen, and it happened in a way that was utterly destructive to your ability to earn a living.  In addition, there is a pretty good possibility that you were just getting back on your feet from Katrina when this happened.  Watching it happen in slow motion might make it easier to deal with, or it might make it harder.  But this spill certainly has the potential to overwhelm your usual coping mechanisms.

For people on the east coast, this might even be a little more traumatic.  That's because people whose livelihood depends on clean water in the Atlantic saw this spill happen and thanked their lucky stars it wasn't near them.  They identified with those on the gulf coast, but they also separated themselves from them.  This was happening to "them" not "us."  Now, they are us, and most people on the eastern seaboard have probably not used the intervening time to figure out what to do.

Others with more expertise than I can expound on the causes of this catastrophe and the implications for future energy policy, the environment, and the like.  When the damage is tallied, the monetary losses to the fishing and tourism industries and others that rely on the ocean will be included.  I hope that those in the know will include, somewhere in there, the psychological damage to the people in those industries and communities who may very well lose their entire way of life.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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