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Mental Health Disaster 

Tens of thousands of previously self-sufficient people have not only had their livelihoods ripped away, but also their way of life

On June 28, Alan Levine, Louisiana's Secretary of Health and Hospitals, wrote to BP requesting $10 million "to help mitigate the behavioral health impacts of the spill on affected individuals and families" — in short, for mental health. The funds would cover six months of treatment and would be dispensed through the state's Louisiana Spirit Hurricane Recovery program, which was founded after Hurricane Katrina and is now renamed the Louisiana Spirit Coastal Recovery Counseling Program. The post-Katrina grants were funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the state now expects BP to pick up the tab for counseling — as it should.

  It's not just Louisiana that's affected, of course. Neighboring states also have requested mental health monies from BP. Mississippi, for example, asked for $10 million, and may seek $10 million more. On July 1, Alabama asked for $5.7 million to set up a call center — and $20 million a year for the next five years. These may seem like large numbers, but consider this statistic: Katrina inflicted $450 million in damages to Plaquemines Parish alone. The BP oil disaster has affected five states so far and shows no sign of abating. Tens of thousands of previously self-sufficient people have not only had their livelihoods ripped away, but also their way of life. The result can be depression, acute stress disorder and long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  Richard Judy, a BP spokesman, told the Associated Press last week the company was planning "comprehensive outreach" across the Gulf Coast but had no comment regarding the states' requests for mental health funding. That's unacceptable. BP is prone to touting how much it's spending to clean up the Gulf waters — $3.12 billion as of July 5. It's time to add mental health to the tab.

  Since oil began washing ashore, "everybody's Katrina angst has re-emerged," says Iray Nabatoff, executive director of the Community Center of St. Bernard. Those are ominous words. Six months after Katrina and the federal floods, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., conducted a study of more than 1,000 survivors of the storm and found widespread psychological distress. Even more disturbing was the study's finding that "few Katrina survivors with mental disorders received adequate care." The study concluded, "Future disaster responses will require timely provision of services to address the barriers faced by survivors."

  "Timely provision" is a phrase that no doubt will haunt the family of Allen "Rookie" Kruse, the Alabama charter boat captain who climbed into the wheelhouse of his moored boat and fired a bullet into his brain in late June. His wife Tracy said the oil disaster (and frustrations with BP's response) upended her husband's life and sent him into a downward spiral of anger, depression and hopelessness.

  Those are some of the same symptoms New Orleans first responders saw after Katrina and the flooding, according to Cecile Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker with the New Orleans Police Department's Crisis Unit. "If BP does not continue to work to help these people and provide tangible hope," Tebo says, "you will see an increase in suicides, self-medicating [with alcohol and drugs], relapses and broken families — just as we did after Katrina."

  Tebo says a big part of the problem is convincing self-reliant, proud people that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness. She adds that communities affected by the oil disaster may find their frustration paralleling that of New Orleanians dealing with the Road Home program and insurance companies post-Katrina. "A lot of our general depression didn't occur until six months down the road," she cautions. With no end to the oil disaster in sight, the people of Plaquemines, Terrebonne or St. Bernard parishes may need mental health assistance for years. Now's the time to set that framework in place — for the long haul.

  In early June, BP ran national television ads in which CEO Tony Hayward promised "We will make it right." It's past time for BP to commit to that process of making it right for Louisianans and anyone else along the Gulf Coast suffering from mental stress, depression or PTSD.

If you or anyone you know needs to speak with a Louisiana Spirit crisis counselor, call (866) 310-7977.

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