We are now on day 51 of the BP Oil Spill. Each day I have watched the news accounts and felt increasing hopelessness and despair. The recently released pictures of the sea birds drowned in oil, helpless and sinking were images I have not been able to shed. My dreams have been filled with images of the gushing oil that is inescapable and pollutes everything. I live in Oregon, thousands of miles from this devastation. What must it be like for those who live there, for those who must once again be brave and strong and resilient? For those who can see, smell, and touch this disaster? I can only imagine the heartbreak of the loss of human life, the damage to financial security, and family stability, and seeing the environmental damage to land and wildlife that are loved.
An article in the morning newspaper referenced concerns for the community mental health of those dealing with this current crisis on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. We know as counselors that natural disasters can lead to mental health issues for survivors and first responders. A 1993 study following the Exxon Valdez spill found that approximately 10% of the community experienced mental health consequences as serious as the environmental consequences. So when I hear the dire predictions that it may be well into August before this spill is stopped and perhaps decades before the environmental damage is repaired (if ever) I wonder what is happening to the people?
Priscilla Dass-Brailsford wrote an article (After the Storm: Recognition, Recovery, and Reconstruction) following Hurricane Katrina detailing her volunteer experiences as a mental health counselor providing support to survivors. As I work through my own response to this current nightmare two passages stood out to me as important to remember. First, “All disaster survivors must learn how to manage a shattered world, to mourn unraveled relationships, and to cope with having witnessed death and destruction. Such coping decreases confusion and increases resilience by ultimately creating, physical, emotional and spiritual balance” (p.26). This is a well known therapeutic process. Any of us working with survivors know that it takes time to reconstruct our schema of the world and once reconstructed this schema is never quite as innocent as it was before. AS counselors, we can respond to this need on positive and proactive ways.
The second quote that struck me seemed incongruous to disaster and crisis. “Disasters allow the inherent good in people to emerge…” (p. 27). As I’ve listened to commentators railing against BP, against off-shore drilling, rampant greed, oil addiction, and the callous disregard of the earth, I had forgotten this part. People are stepping up to do what they can in both small and large ways to deal with this disaster. From volunteers cleaning beaches to churches praying for their local fishermen to professional football players showing up to bring a smile, there is good in the midst of this horrible situation.
I don’t believe it is enough to just relax and rest on the thought that inherent good is emerging. It has to emerge in me as an individual and in us as a profession. The New Orleans Saints are raffling a super bowl ring hoping to raise a million dollars towards oil spill relief. What ideas do you; the readers of this blog, have to respond to this current disaster in ways that provides support and give hope?
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.