The Washington Post reported today that an Alabama fisherman working on the BP oil spill clean-up committed suicide on Wednesday, making him perhaps the first post-accident casualty, and reflecting what may end up being a deeper and longer-lasting impact on the Gulf States’ psyche than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
That region, particularly the New Orleans metropolitan area and the Mississippi coast, has still never truly recovered from those storms, emotionally, physically or financially. There is very little capacity to cope with a new disaster, especially one that appears to have no end in sight.
And yet when the White House announced last week that it had secured a promise from BP to set aside $20 billion in assets to mitigate the costs of the spill, not a single penny of that was earmarked for physical or mental health services. Importantly, it will pay claims for economic distress and damage, and will help rebuild the seafood, oil and gas services, and tourism industries.
But what about the health of those expected to be a part of that rebuilding? Yesterday and today I spoke with physicians who are scrambling to respond to what appears to be a slowly unfolding mental health crisis.
Dr. Chuck Coleman, a psychiatrist who helps run the St. Bernard Project’s Center for Wellness and Mental Health, said that there has been an increase in symptoms for those who were already anxious or depressed, and a noticeable increase in substance abuse and domestic violence. The Project is turning to the wives of the men who can no longer fish, shrimp or dredge for oysters, using them to conduct outreach and make referrals.
But, as Dr. Coleman notes, this also is not a group of people who are comfortable seeking mental health services. That was echoed by Dr. Ben Springgate, a Tulane University internist, who along with colleagues, has been conducting training sessions for organizations such as the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corp. The idea is for each community to reach out to its own in a culturally appropriate fashion — something that has been a goal nationally for health care providers.
Dr. Springgate noted that while it was well and good for state and federal officials to expect BP to pay for all costs related to the spill, the reality is that health care is being overlooked. He claimed that the state of Louisiana had asked BP for a fund to monitor long term health effects, and for a $10 million disbursement to cover short term mental health needs. The company refused both, he said.
Hopefully, it won’t take the collapse of a community — or multiple suicides — to bring quick resources to the region.
— Alicia Ault (on Twitter @aliciaault)