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After Hurricanes, Gulf Residents Face New Mental Health Risks Over Oil Leak

June 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now a different kind of toll stemming from the Gulf oil disaster, this one on the mental health of citizens still coping with the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has the second of two reports tonight from the region tonight from New Orleans East.

The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most mornings, they start lining up before dawn. Members of Louisiana’s Vietnamese community wait patiently for emergency aid outside the Mary Queen of Vietnam outreach center in New Orleans East.

Many are fishermen who haven’t been able to catch anything since April 28. That’s when the oil spill closed most of the areas of the Gulf where they earn their living. If they’re lucky, they will get a voucher from Catholic Charities that will buy them $100 worth of food, but there are only 25 to 30 to go around each day.

For the men, standing in line to accept a handout is a big cultural mountain to climb. Celine Le is a project director at the center.

CELINE LE, Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation: Everything is on a man. You’re a man. You’re strong. You have to be strong. You have to be able to earn money, provide a living for your family, your wife, your children. So, taking that away from a man is — it can be very harmful to their self-esteem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Le says the problems she confronts every day here are much more serious than pride among her people who number more than 25,000 statewide.

CELINE LE: The stress level, I’m pretty sure, is through the roof. People here are very worried about their future, what are they going to do, how they’re going to support their family. If they can’t go back to the fishing industry, what are they going to do, because this is all they know all their lives.

Some of these people have been fishermen back in Vietnam. They moved to the U.S., and this is what they know to do. And if they can’t go back, it’s going to be really hard for them to adjust and go to a different industry.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fifty-four-year-old Hue Nguyen has been a fisherman for 19 years. He told us he’s been trying unsuccessfully to get a job working for BP on the cleanup, but, so far, nothing. Celine Le interpreted for him.

HUE NGUYEN, fisherman (through translator): I wait at home, and I just wait at home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what do you do now that you don’t have money?

HUE NGUYEN (through translator): I just wait for them to call, so I can go out there and clean up and earn some money. I don’t know what to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nguyen says he’s sad and frustrated. He hasn’t been able to send money to his family back in Vietnam for nearly three months.

HUE NGUYEN (through translator): Sometimes, I think at night, and it’s really hard for me to sleep. And I don’t have a job. I don’t have money.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Linda Dinh’s husband is also a fisherman. He hasn’t been able to get work from BP either, and she says he is depressed.

LINDA DINH, wife of fisherman: Him sad. Him not sleep good. Him crazy head. Him sick. Him look like him — him work the fisherman all the time. Him like it, go boat.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: To complicate matters, Le says, even though people here need counseling, most of them won’t ask for it.

CELINE LE: Vietnamese population are not aware of mental health issues. Plus, they don’t like, you know, going to a mental health clinic, seeing a mental health doctor.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s a stigma?

CELINE LE: It’s a stigma. They try to stay away from that. “I’m not crazy. Why should I go to a mental health doctor?”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even if the people who live here were clamoring for mental health services, they would have a hard time finding any. The one psychiatrist that used to practice in this area left some time after Katrina.

And the problem is not confined to just the Vietnamese community. A shortage of psychiatric professionals can be found all over Southern Louisiana.

After the flooding, many areas of the Gulf Coast lost the few doctors they had, and, today, nearly five years later, most of them haven’t come back.

DR. HOWARD OSOFSKY, Louisiana State University: Right now, there’s a paucity of resources.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Howard Osofsky has been concerned about the shortage of doctors for years. He heads the Department of Psychiatry at Louisiana State University and says the need now is greater than ever.

DR. HOWARD OSOFSKY: We’re already seeing people reporting an increase in anger, an increase in anxiety, people describing post-traumatic stress. We’re seeing people who are demonstrating signs of depression, finding it harder to get going, finding themselves withdrawing more from their family, from friends.

We’re seeing some arguing and fighting, even among neighbors and family members. We’re seeing the indications of an increase in alcohol use, perhaps abuse.

And this is normal. If people are really worried and have time on their hands and are sitting around, but really are worried about their future, it is easy to have extra alcohol to try and deal with the anxiety, to try and deal with the worries that one is having.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, studies show there was also a spike in cases of alcohol abuse, as well as domestic violence and emotional distress. There were similar findings in Louisiana after Katrina.

Work done by the University of New Orleans found the number of people with mental illness doubled after the disaster. But experts like Osofsky say the oil spill is different, because it’s the second major life-altering event to hit the Gulf in less than five years, affecting people who were just recently getting over the trauma of five years ago.

DR. HOWARD OSOFSKY: What is happening here which is different from other technological disasters, other disasters, is, this disaster is built on the recovery, the continuing recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Gustav. People were still recovering. People were feeling more hopeful.

And now they’re hit with an additional type of whammy, which is something that — that, at least for limited numbers of people, could be much more long-lasting. They don’t know if they can have their future back.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although Osofsky and other mental health professionals are trying to bring more psychiatric counseling to the area, federal and foundation money is hard to come by in a down economy.

Meanwhile, they worry what a catastrophe with seemingly no end in sight is going to do to a fragile population that is still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf five years ago next month.