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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Psychology team conducts research on BP oil spill aftermath

On April 20, 2010, the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. More than two years later, residents along the coast are still feeling the effects.

According to research conducted by a team of professors and graduate students in the UM Department of Psychology, 40 percent of the adults who live on Mississippi’s coast have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the oil spill.

“Those with PTSD are experiencing severe levels of stress and anxiety and are reliving experiences related to the event,” said Stefan Schulenberg, associate professor of psychology. “The oil spill continues to have a significant impact on the quality of life of Gulf Coast residents.”

After the spill, BP provided the state of Mississippi with $12 million to address mental health concerns. The Mississippi Department of Mental Health (MSDMH) established the BP Behavioral Health Grant program.

“The majority of the funds went to direct mental health services,” Schulenberg said. “For example, people seeking therapy. A good percentage also went to training efforts — preparing mental health professionals for disaster work and directly training residents in resilience and coping. We were brought in to evaluate. How many people are being served? How are people doing? What sorts of services are being provided and what kinds of services continue to be needed? It is what is referred to as program evaluation, essentially. We’re tracking 19 different sites that are providing therapy, training, outreach or a combination of these.”

Schulenberg is head of the UM Clinical-Disaster Research Collaborative, a diverse team of researchers and graduate students from the psychology department focusing on research, education and service in the area of clinical-disaster psychology. The group conducts American Red Cross trainings in the community and outreach through the Mississippi Disaster Response Network. Schulenberg served as a mental health responder in the Yocona and Pine Flat areas in the wake of the tornadoes last spring and trains graduate students to assist in community education and intervention.

His team includes 10 graduate students who serve as site liaisons and data managers for the BP project. The students travel to the coast to interact with personnel at the mental health sites and collect data.

“We provide sites with training to collect data in a correct and ethical way,” said Brooke Walters, a doctoral student in psychology. “We answer questions and provide materials. We ask how the data-collection procedures are working for each particular site, and they provide feedback as to how we can make the process better for them. Essentially, we are the go-between for the sites and the MSDMH.”

Schulenberg attended the University of South Dakota and was recognized as the first student in the nation to receive the disaster psychology specialty when he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 2001.

“It’s a new field in that sense,” Schulenberg said. “Now there are growing numbers of psychologists who go out into the community after a disaster and try to help people.”

Schulenberg said the specialty will continue to grow.

“My fear as an educator of future psychologists is that you are basically trained for people to come to you,” he said. “Many professionals work in a clinic somewhere, for instance. Our research and service work is all about going out into the community and helping people where they live and work. With the graduate students, the idea is that it helps encourage them to learn how to get out of the office and into the community. They actually go down to the coast routinely and work with the different sites. They see the importance of having collaboration outside of the university and the positive impact that it can have.”

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