Clinical Disaster Research Center

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Investigating the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Change AgentsChange Agents for Mississippi—In April 2010, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spread almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an environmental disaster of a magnitude never before seen. Three hundred miles from the coast, researchers at the University of Mississippi stood ready to offer their service and expertise. These are the stories of three UM researchers who led the way in studying the environmental and social repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill.

Mental Health Impact

Stefan Schulenberg

Stefan Schulenberg

While marine scientists rushed to study the environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the state of Mississippi sought a way to study a more personal impact: the mental health impact on Gulf Coast residents who lost jobs, faced unexpected financial crises and experienced turmoil in the wake of the disaster. The state found that leadership in University of Mississippi researcher Stefan Schulenberg, associate professor of psychology.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health appointed Schulenberg to assess its Mental Health Oil Spill Recovery-Behavioral Health Grant Program, a $12 million fund provided by British Petroleum. A portion of the funding supported Schulenberg and a large team, composed of UM graduate students and two additional members of the psychology department faculty, over two years as they collected and analyzed data about mental health impacts of the disaster.

Schulenberg’s graduate students were divided into two teams. The first, a data team, collated information collected by the 19 mental health facilities participating in the program. The second, a site liaison team, visited the facilities regularly to support the data collection process. The goals of the team were to assess the amount of mental health services, training and outreach provided by the agencies funded by the grant program, and to assess the spill’s mental health effects.

Schulenberg and the team are advocating for coastal residents of Mississippi who would benefit from additional mental health services related to the spill, and they are also contributing to the science in this area, working to inform future research and intervention efforts.

“For assessing the impact of the spill, we developed a questionnaire that asked people how they were affected, and we included a number of reliable and valid research measures,” Schulenberg said. “We looked at depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, and we also looked at variables on the positive side like self-efficacy, perceived meaning and life satisfaction. Traditionally, clinical psychology has been about what is wrong with people, but the field continues to evolve such that we’re also very interested in what is right and healthy in people, resilience being a good example. In order to understand the effects disasters have on mental health, it’s important to focus not just on risk factors but also on protective factors.”

Read about the other researchers.