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Oil Spill Takes Emotional Toll on Gulf Residents

Citing the “unprecedented” nature of the BP oil spill disaster, federal and state medical officials expressed concern Friday about what they see as mounting mental health issues that people in the Gulf states are facing.

Public health officials in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida all said the growing need is especially worrisome because it comes at a time when their states are experiencing cuts in health services because of “very tight” budgets.

In a conference call hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services, Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, a native of Alabama’s Gulf region, said she knows from “experience” the kinds of “anger, anxiety, depression and stress” many residents are experiencing in the wake of the oil spill.

Pamela Hyde, administrator of the HHS’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, said people who have previously experienced trauma, such as those who lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are more likely to develop emotional problems. She called the disaster “unique” in that it seems to have no end and is heavily impacting the “culture, the way of life and the ecological landscape” of Gulf residents, especially those who live in fishing communities and are now involved in the clean-up operations.

Hyde said the HHS is preparing thousands of pamphlets offering suggestions to people about how to deal with mental stress. She expects them be handed out in states along the Gulf in the coming weeks.

Officials from both Louisiana and Florida have written BP to ask the company to provide money to offer mental health services to people who need them in the region. Louisiana officials have twice written BP executives citing the growing need and asking for $10 million to provide mental health services.

The last letter was sent on June 28 to Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles. So far, officials say they have received no response.

One Florida health official said a letter dated June 10 to BP executives asking for assistance has also received no reply.

Surgeon General Benjamin said she and other HHS officials are working very hard to communicate a “sense of urgency” and “doing everything they can at the highest levels,” but she added there are “no answers for you yet.”

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