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The National Institute of Mental Health archives materials that are over 4 years old and no longer being updated. The content on this page is provided for historical reference purposes only and may not reflect current knowledge or information.

Gulf Oil Spill and Mental Health

In the wake of the Gulf coast oil spill, Dr. Farris Tuma, Chief of the NIMH Traumatic Stress Research Program, addresses mental health challenges facing residents and health care providers. Dr. Tuma talks about warning signs and action steps individuals should consider if they are concerned about the well being of their families.

For more information about coping with the oil spill, please see this fact sheet.


Announcer: By now, the images from the Gulf oil spill are unmistakable- embedded in our minds. But this disaster has also produced a series of great unknowns- the impact on the environment, the economy and the long term health effects of the region. That includes coming to grips with, what one Louisiana Congressman wrote, “the rising number of mental health problems… an entire region struggling emotionally from the stress and uncertainty of this tragedy.” At the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Dr. Farris Tuma has long studied the traumatic effects of natural and man-made disasters.

 Dr. Farris Tuma: One of the tragedies that we have seen over and over again after large scale disasters, is really a spiraling downward of people who were, maybe, managing to keep their lives together, to keep their emotions and behavioral problems under control. But with some additional stress and some additional disorganization in their community- really became quite disabled by their anxiety, depression, psychosis.

Announcer: For the people of the Gulf region, and the mental health professionals who must care for them, it’s critical to identify action steps for those who are at risk…

Dr. Farris Tuma: So, as a starting point, some things that people can do, is to identify what is causing them stress. Identify the signs of that so the signs include things like changes in their sleep, their behavior, eating, drinking more alcohol, lack of exercise, feeling very depressed or helpless- hopeless. Becoming angry and easily agitated. Recognizing these signs is a very important first step. Setting realistic expectations for themselves… not trying to solve problems that they can foresee in the future a year from now or two years from now. But setting realistic short term objectives and goals for themselves is a very good strategy. Being patient with yourself.

Announcer: Dr. Tuma believes its essential people with existing mental health or other chronic health conditions continue to see their health care providers and continue with medications…

Dr. Farris Tuma: There are, of course, a number of local and regional resources being put in place to deal with this but it’s very important also to let people know who are in crisis- who feel that they can’t go on- that there is a 1-800 lifeline, 24-hours a day, seven days a week- 1-800-273-TALK. This is a suicide prevention hotline. The Department of Health and Human Services and NIMH also have helpful information both for individuals having trouble coping but also for mental health providers who are looking for resources and guidance on how best to engage people who are presenting to them with very troubling and distressing problems but maybe not the typical kinds of disorders that they might be use to treating.

Announcer:  Just as the environmental effects of the spill will be measured in months, if not years, the mission of mental health care has been compared to a marathon.  But research from other tragedies reinforces what may be the greatest measure of hope…

Dr. Farris Tuma: One thing we know about resilience from both biological and a social perspective is that we have as a species some pretty hard wired capacities in our brains to adapt and to overcome. These are survival mechanisms that are built into us. So, this is largely biological or certainly a major part of it is biological, but there’s a huge social component to this. And the ability to see into the future, of course, no one has. But knowing that there are committed and caring individuals who want to help and bring relief hopefully will be of some help to families as they struggle day in and day out.