Study: BP oil spill has taken heavy toll on Gulf mental health

Biloxi Sun HeraldAugust 16, 2010 

About 30 percent of Gulf Coast residents are suffering with mental-health issues in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, according to a study by the nonprofit Ochsner Health System in Louisiana.

Ochsner Health System surveyed 406 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It found 12 percent of respondents in Mississippi indicated they were suffering from serious mental illness and 23 percent indicated they were suffering from mild to moderate mental illness in the wake of the oil spill.

“This is all fairly new to us, this technological disaster,” said Jeff Bennett, director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport. “We’re familiar with hurricanes — it hits you, and it’s over. A technological disaster comes in stages.

“One of the key things of mental stability is balance, and this leaves people unbalanced.”

Bennett said the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center surveyed new and existing patients and most replied the oil spill had affected their lives in some way.

John Hosey, mental-health coordinator with the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force, said the mental-health professionals with whom he collaborates report an increase in clients since the oil spill.

Many are anxious about job security and meeting their financial obligations, Hosey said.

According to the Ochsner study, 33 percent of Mississippi respondents reported money problems as a precipitating stressor and 15 percent reported work problems as a stressor.

The oil spill’s effects only compound the region’s difficulties recuperating from the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the nation’s economic downturn.

“We were just beginning to recover from Katrina,” Bennett said.

Both Hosey and Bennett identified the fishing community as more at risk.

“It’s not just making money with fishing,” Hosey said. “It’s a way of life.”

When someone loses his or her way of life, it can do damage to dignity and self-esteem, he said.

The region’s Vietnamese fishing community is particularly vulnerable, Bennett said. Some among them are less likely to seek mental-health help because of the language barriers and the cultural stigma attached.

Ochsner’s study found more mental-health issues among younger respondents and those with lower incomes.

Some in need of help may find it difficult to pay for professional mental-health services. Bennett said Gulf Coast Mental Health Center charges on a sliding scale based on income.

Other counselors, such as clergy members, can be a source of support, Hosey said.

“Sometimes just talking with someone can help,” he said.

Although mental-health services are available, the effects the oil spill will have on the coastal community further down the road are still unknown.

“We’re concerned about the long-term impacts,” Hosey said.

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