To help victims of disaster, we have to remember them

By Saybrook University

Oil-spill It’s been nearly ten months since the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. For American media, it is a distant memory. For those that it affects, it is still an everyday horror story.

 On that dreadful day of April 10, 2010, oil spewed out into some of the worlds most precious and vital wildlife sanctuaries in the Golf Coast. Scientists estimate 18-39 million barrels of oil leaked into the waters over a series of months spreading over nearly 30,000 square miles.

Media attention has primarily focused on the immediate effects of the spill, the environmental travesty, and its effect on the American food supply.

This is significant. But the human toll of this travesty is unreported on, and far worse. 

Recent research from the University of Florida about the effects of the BP Oil spill crisis will startle you. In the wake of this disaster Florida and Alabama have seen increased anxiety, depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mood disturbances.

 “One of the things that caught us by surprise, from the mental health perspective, is that we wouldn’t expect to see such a strong peak of mental health issues until about three years after a disaster,” said William Mahan, one of the authors of the study.

Worse yet, recent fears regarding the oil and its effect on wildlife at the bottom of the sea have proved valid. Early in the crisis, scientist Terry Hazen at Berkley National Labs claimed that microbes would degrade the spilled oil. Recently, skeptics of his theory proved substantiated when research from the University of Georgia revealed that oil still remains in the waters of the Golf Coast and has killed sea life from the deepwater. Microbes are said to have absorbed only ten percent of the oil in the water.

In the wake of this repulsive human disaster, what can be done for the people left behind? What does rehabilitation from disasters look like—for those who are suffering mental health issues from this disaster and others like it?

Modern day crisis intervention theory resulted from the Wellesley Project, a community mental health program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Wellesley Project discovered a large population of people in crisis states resulting from traumatic experiences; including death, combat injuries, fires and other life events that exceeded a person’s range of coping mechanisms.

Currently, the most widespread model of crisis intervention is the ABC Model. The ABC Crisis Model of Intervention involves concise mental health interviews with people who have decreased levels of functioning after a precipitating crisis event or psychosocial stressor. Utilizing the ABC Model of Crisis Intervention in a community involves:

A: Achieving contact. Essentially, this means that the mental health or crisis professional establishes rapport with the client. With an emphasis on empathic understanding and comfort, the interventionalist is encouraged to make the client feel comfortable; in order to understand the inner experience of their traumatic event.

B: Boiling the problem down to basics. In this step of the model, the professional is encouraged to help the client clearly identify and delineate the problem; thus the precipitating event or psychosocial stressor that resulted in crisis symptoms. This step is the most important; as coping strategies and alternative thinking patterns cannot effectively be implemented without a clear definition of the crisis event.

C: Coping. The past and present coping strategies in the client’s life are examined. Often, especially in severe global crises, support groups are encouraged with people who have experienced the same event. Behavioral coping strategies are encouraged, case management services are provided and the overall development of new coping strategies based on old successes is encouraged.

It would be a stretch to say that crisis intervention is “easy as ABC,” but there are effective steps we can follow.  We can only do it, however, if we are actually reaching out. 

Instead those of us not directly effected by this crisis seem to be doing everything we can to put it out of sight and out of mind – a common strategy these days.  America’s gulf coast was devastated by our largest environmental disaster ever;  American veterans are coming home with PTSD;  American workers are being laid off;  and in case after case the rest of the country averts its eyes and asks about how it can cut their aid.

America is collecting humanitarian crises, and instead of intervening it’s going out of its way to make them worse.

We can do better only if we remember that “victims” are human beings.  We have to reach out. 

— Liz Schreiber