Mental health troubles brewing along the Gulf Coast

By Jay Reeves
Sunday, October 10, 2010

ORANGE BEACH, ALA. - Her income down to virtually nothing because of the BP oil spill, Margaret Carruth put her face in her hands and wept recently at a town hall meeting before walking outside to what passes for home these days, her blue pickup.

Xanax helps her rest. Still, it's hard to relax when you've lost your house and are sleeping at friends' places or, sometimes, in the front seat.

The oil gusher is dead, but the mental trauma it caused along the Gulf of Mexico coast is still very much alive.

"I'm a strong person and always have been, but I'm almost to the breaking point," says Carruth, whose hairstyling business dried up after tourists stopped coming to the beach and locals cut back on nonessentials such as haircuts. All but broke, Carruth packed her belongings into her truck and a storage shed and now depends on friends for shelter.

Carruth's anguish is part of a common but little talked about consequence of the summer of oil: people overcome by stress and worry, who are having a hard time navigating a world that seems so different from the one they knew before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, sending waves of crude and tar balls toward the coast.

Surveys show that in some areas badly affected by the oil, more than 40 percent of those seeking mental-health help say they are having problems because of the spill.

The oil spill followed waves of hard luck for the region, including hurricanes and recession. Experts say it's impossible to determine how much of the current mental health downturn could have roots in other ordeals.

But a study conducted over the summer in 13 counties and parishes with a total population of 1.9 million found that 13 percent of coastal adults from Louisiana to Florida suffered probable serious mental illnesses after the spill, although it wasn't clear exactly how many problems were directly related to oil.

The level of mental illness was similar to that seen six months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coast five years ago, and experts aren't yet seeing improvement in mental health nearly six months after the oil crisis began. Before Katrina, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health found only 6 percent of area residents with likely mental illnesses.

"From the types of patients we are seeing in our emergency departments, clinics and hospitals, the problems are persisting," said William Pinsky of the New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System, which conducted the random telephone survey of 406 people in four states.

Sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, anger, substance abuse and domestic violence are among the most common problems reported by mental health agencies.

BP has provided $52 million for mental health care in the gulf region, with $15 million going to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals; $12 million each to the states of Alabama and Mississippi; $3 million to Florida; and $10 million to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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