by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director
BP this week announced that it will provide $52 million to federal and state health organizations to fund behavioral health support and outreach programs across the Gulf Coast region.
In a July letter to BP, NAMI blasted the oil company for ignoring appeals by Louisiana to fund mental health services in communities directly affected by the Deep Horizon oil spill. This month we also challenged Kenneth Feinberg, the independent claims administrator for the $20 billion relief fund created by BP, to cover mental health needs resulting from the spill.
With this down payment, BP has acknowledged the deep and profound impact of the oil spill on the already fragile mental health care systems of Gulf Coast states--and that people need local support.
Whenever there is a disaster, it affects everyone in the community. People living with existing mental illnesses, those with low incomes and children are among the most vulnerable.
People dependent on the Gulf Coast region for their livelihoods will likely be adversely affected by the oil spill for years to come, but with adequate resources, there is hope.
NAMI is available in these communities to offer education and support. Our affiliate leaders and members live and work in the Gulf Coast area. They understand the variety of ways life has been disrupted and are equipped to help others affected by mental illness.
NAMI has created a website to help support Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill. Visit www.nami.org/oilspill for national, state and local support for information on everything from employment to mental health care.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it’s also important to remember that long before the oil spill, these storms devastated the mental health care systems in Louisiana and Mississippi.
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, New Orleans Five Years After The Storm: A New Disaster Amid Recovery, while the majority of New Orleans residents (59%) feel that they city has not full recovered from the Hurricane Katrina,
nearly 50 percent of residents also expect that the Gulf Coast oil spill will cause more damage than the 2005 hurricane.
Across the Gulf Coast, depression, suicide attempts, family violence, substance abuse and other mental health problems are already on the rise. Treatment works-- if people can get it.
However, in many communities, it may be difficult or impossible to find a local mental health provider.
How will people get the help they need? We cannot afford to ignore this question. These mental health systems need continued investment to meet the increasing needs of their communities.
We do not know what the long-term effects of the oil spill will be, but we can learn from the Exxon-Valdez spill. A study conducted one-year following the spill suggested that the “oil spill’s impact on the psychosocial environment was as significant as its impact on the physical environment.” The study noted an increased prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms in Alaska communities affected by the spill.
Families were torn apart, bank accounts were wiped out and suicides spiked. Nobody wants to repeat this history.
Everyone can be alert to warning signs related to mental health problems, such as insomnia, dizziness, mood swings, increased use of drugs or alcohol and headaches or stomach problems. If you experience these symptoms, or recognize them in a loved one, don’t dismiss them. Seek help.
At NAMI, we know that the road to recovery is rarely smooth, but the support of others who understand your losses, your frustrations, but also your aspirations for the future, can make all the difference.