The State of Mental Health on the Gulf Coast…BP Hasn’t Given a Dime

William Allen Kruse

On the Gulf Coast, the oil spill is taking another toll, one not as obvious as oil covered pelicans or slicks on the water: “The mental health impact here…and the level of uncertainty is taking a toll on people and that’s a huge concern,” Kindra Arnesen says, “Stress? Dude my clothes are falling off me (because of weight loss) The level of stress here is tremendous. My husband has aged ten years in two months…” Kindra is packing up her belongings, preparing to leave the Gulf Coast. Her husband is staying behind to work in cleanup crews for BP, but because their children are getting sick from fumes around Venice, she’s decided it’s time to go. Ricky Robin of Violet, Louisiana echoes Kindra’s concerns… “I can’t sleep at night, I find myself crying sometimes.” Robin, a Louisiana shrimper calls the oil spill, “a slow-moving hurricane. You’re looking at it and you can’t do nothing about it. Everybody’s acting strange, frustrated, stressed out, fighting brothers and sisters and mamas and family.”

Thousands of Gulf Coast fisherman face a disaster of financial ruin because of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Yesterday, the catastrophe entered its third month and by all estimates will be affecting the Gulf Coast for years to come and many say the stress is worse than after Hurricane Katrina. Then, they were able to go back to work despite the ruin the hurricane left in its wake. Now, this is impossible as nobody knows when the waters will reopen, especially since the well has yet to be permanently sealed. Gone are their livelihoods, their routines, any sense of security once held. Many of the residents were independent, used to making their own decisions and  running their own lives, but this has all now been replaced by a dependence on British Petroleum, either being hired to do cleanup or waiting for checks to come, their date of arrival as uncertain as anything else these past three months.

Psychiatrists who treated people after Katrina and have held group sessions in areas inundated with oil, say the symptoms they see are very much the same. Anger. Anxiety. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Helplessness. Pressure. Father Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA President says he fears an uptick in cases of domestic abuse, child abuse and suicide similar to what happened in Hurricane Katrina. “Many of the people are the same who were impacted then, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike – and now once again, they are worried about what their futures will hold.” In mid-June, worries about the future likely claimed its first victim. Two weeks after he was hired by BP to help with the oil spill cleanup, William Allen Kruse killed himself on his boat. Kruse left no note, so though it is impossible to say for sure why he took his own life, Tom Ard, who fished alongside him for 25 years said, “There’s no doubt in my mind the oil spill caused this, it was just too much for him.”

Social Services around the Gulf Coast are beginning to see a trickle of people coming for help, and many in the mental health field recognize that in disaster zones, need often comes in clusters. As one person seeks help in a community, this will often open doors to others and soon the need quickly outweighs the supply. This is especially pertinent in locations like the Gulf Coast, where “unfortunately the people most affected, shrimpers and fisherman, are not people who traditionally seek mental health services,” says Jeffery Bennet, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport, “They’re kind of tough characters, and look at being depressed or not being able to handle their own problems as weakness.” Oftentimes, it takes the suicide of an acquaintance or friend for people to recognize the seriousness of their own depression. One counseling center in Alabama saw no people asking for services one day, but then two days after the death of William Kruse, five people came in saying they needed help because of the spill and as news of his death spread east to Florida, one agency publicized their crisis line and several calls started coming in daily.

John Ziegler, a spokesman for mental health services in Alabama said counselors have gone out to marinas, docks and other places frequented by fisherman. “They have had people break down and weep,” he said, “They have had people share some of their deepest feelings about their future and how they’re feeling now that things seem imminent.” The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospital’s (DHH) crisis counseling teams have also been on the docks, engaging and counseling more than 2,000 individuals. Community based organizations such as LEAN, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network spend long days out, seeking to help those in need while Kindra Arnesen herself recently set up the Wives of Commercial Fisherman Network to respond to pressures in her community. The outreach providers all say many Gulf Coast residents are reporting similar experiences and symptoms: depression, worries about the future, feelings of failure and a loss of identity. Recently, a friend of Kindra Arnesen told her he was so upset about his failure to get hired by BP’s cleanup crews he was considering suicide. And this is the fear, left untreated, the frustration, depression, grief and anger can quickly develop into behavioral health problems that lead to the breakdown of the familial structures, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicidal thinking.

What is needed in the Gulf Coast is outreach. People don’t seek mental health assistance for many reasons. They fear being stigmatized by friends or families. They don’t want to appear weak to those who depend upon them for support. They don’t have the time, they’ll take care of that later, they don’t know where to go or who to ask. Outreach into the communities help to break down these barriers. A golden rule of social work: if people aren’t coming to you for services, bring the services to them. Outreach, and more outreach is crucial in these next few months to promote discussion, the communication between people of common experience so those in need can begin healing the psyches that continue to be battered with each new wave of oil.

The economies of the Gulf Coasts states have been shaken up by the recession impacting the rest of the country, budgets are running in the red, deficits extend city by city, county by county, and outreach costs money. “There is a dire need to access greater funding that can be used to serve the immediate and long-term needs of the growing vulnerable population,” Father Snyder says.

The requests are being made, but is British Petroleum listening?

The Lousiana DHH have requested $10 million dollars to support six months of continued outreach activities for their Louisiana Spirit Program to provide mental health services to those affected by the oil spill. Mississippi has also asked for $10 million dollars and Florida has asked too. Alabama has requested $5.7 million dollars so they can get more counselors in the field over the first three months and an additional $20 million dollars per year for the next five years to sustain outreach and work with people in need to find real solutions and provide professional care.

Justin Saia, a BP spokesman said recently each state’s proposal is going through the “review process” but three months in, no decisions have been made on any of the requests. This answer is unsatisfactory; the need is present now, growing stronger and the people attempting to provide services are frustrated at the lack of response from British Petroleum. After requests made on May 28th and June 28th, the Louisiana DHH advised the US Department of Health and Human Services in a July 9th letter they have requested $10 million dollars from BP without receiving a formal reply.

Feeling the same anger, Michael J. Fitzpatrick, the executive Director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) wrote a public letter last week to Doug Suttles of BP:

“It is imperative that BP recognize the urgent mental health crisis that has been created by the oil spill, including the heightened risk of long-term, chronic mental illness triggered by immediate conditions,” Fitzpatrick writes, “In recent weeks BP has put considerable resources into media advertisements pledging to help people affected by the oil spill. The company’s apparent failure to respond swiftly to two appeals from Secretary Levine (Louisiana DHH) requesting financial assistance for mental health crisis counseling is inconsistent with that pledge. Louisiana’s mental health system has already been severely strained…The psychological impact of the oil spill on the lives of people is widely documented. Rates of depression, suicides and suicide attempts, family violence, alcoholism and substance abuse and other serious mental health problems are sharply on the rise in affected communities. These problems are so severe that mental health issues were identified as the priority health concern from the disaster at a recent meeting of the Institute of Medicine in New Orleans.”

Louisiana Health Department spokeswoman, Lisa Faust said following the release of Fitzpatrick’s letter, BP finally made its first acknowledgment of their request, by fax, yet no money has been promised. The Louisiana Health Department has since called again, but not yet received a response.

There is reason for this lack of response.

In a recent article in “On the Hill,” it is noted that “Louisiana’s demands have significant future implications for disputes over BP’s liability in the spill. Much like claims for damage from bodily injury, mental health is not covered under the oil pollution act, the 1990 federal law that holds oil companies liable for “removal costs and damages resulting from an incident.” BP’s response to the request could be seen as a precedent in a new area.

BP would appear to be protecting their bottom line, again.

The time for that is over.

Outreach is needed.

Helplessness and uncertainty is to be had in the Gulf Coast. It is being felt by the fisherman, the oil rig workers suffering under the moratorium and the families of everyone associated with the industries who suddenly find themselves and their way of life sinking amongst the slicks of oil. Families are being separated. Pressures are increasing. Stress, anxiety, depression are all being felt and experienced and people need the options outreach could provide. Uncertainty is also being felt by non-profits and mental health agencies who want to be there for the Gulf, to offer services, but the state money is quickly running out and more counselors are needed.

George Pfeiffer a boat captain on the Gulf Coast finds himself angry all the time, “Our families want to know what’s going on. When we get home, we’re stressed out and tired, and they want answers and we don’t have any.” His wife, Yvonne: “I haven’t slept, I’ve lost weight. My shoulders are in knots. My stress level has my shoulders up to my ears.”

The Gulf Coast is a proud community, filled with self-made people who enjoy a tough job on the water. Many suffered through Katrina and were made promises by one president, only to be let down. Now they are in need due to the malfeasance of British Petroleum. They didn’t ask for this. They obviously didn’t want this, and we can’t allow British Petroleum to let them down again.

Keep pressure on the bastards.

Have a nice day.

Source material for this article comes from the website, On The Hill; the AP article entitled Oil Spills’ Psychological Toll Quietly Mounts and the website


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