Ethnic Differences in Stress, Coping, and Depressive Symptoms after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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This study assessed levels of depressive symptomatology in a household probability sample of Alaskan Native (N = 188) and Euro-American (N = 371) residents of 13 communities in Alaska. Our objective was to examine ethnic differences in both the association between depressive symptomatology and exposure to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and subsequent cleanup efforts, and in the role of family support as a moderator of exposure to this technological disaster. Level of exposure was significantly associated with mean Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Scale scores in both Natives (p <.05) and Euro-Americans (p <.01). Both ethnic groups also reported significant declines in traditional relations with increasing levels of exposure (p <.001). However, Natives had a significantly higher mean Exposure Index score than Euro-Americans and were more likely to report working on cleanup activities, damage to commercial fisheries, and effects of the spill on subsistence activities. Depressive symptomatology was associated with reported participation in cleanup activities and other forms of contact with the oil in Natives, and reported damage to commercial fisheries, use of affected areas, and residence in a community in geographic proximity to the spill in Euro-Americans. Perceived family support was not directly associated with depressive symptoms in either ethnic group, but did serve to buffer the effects of exposure on depressive symptoms in Euro-Americans. The results suggest that cultural differences play an important role in determining the psychosocial impacts of a technological disaster, particularly with respect to exposure, appraisal of an event as stressful, perceived family support as a moderator of stress, and expression of depressive symptomatology.

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