Oil Spill Response: Making Behavioral Health a Top Priority
By Kristin Blank
Acknowledging that the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents in the Gulf region, BP recently contributed $52 million to fund mental health and substance abuse support services. Funding goes to SAMHSA and the four states most affected in the area—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. (See SAMHSA, Gulf States Receive $52 Million for Behavioral Health.)
“We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images—the oil on the water, on the pelicans and other wildlife, on the sandy beaches,” said LCDR Jamie Seligman, LMSW-C, Project Officer at SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. “What we haven’t seen is the families grieving the loss of their way of life. This is the invisible damage that may have the longest-lasting impact on Gulf Coast residents.”
After two recent trips to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas, LCDR Seligman said what touched him most was the looks on people’s faces. “These people are strong and resilient, but right now, they are stressed. It’s not easy for them to ask for help, but they need jobs, school supplies for their children.”
LCDR Seligman is SAMHSA’s representative at a series of town hall meetings held all over the Gulf Coast states. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, J.D., M.A., leads the meetings and LCDR Seligman is there to support the Secretary in answering any questions that come up about mental health or substance abuse.
As many as 400 people have attended each meeting, and the audiences are diverse, composed of environmentalists, business owners, charter boat captains, shrimpers, parents, and teachers. While most of the questions center around the economy and jobs, behavioral health concerns are just beneath the surface, LCDR Seligman said.
“With Hurricane Katrina, you could see all the damage—the Superdome, the streets, the housing,” he said, recalling his experiences as part of that disaster relief team. “I think this situation is traumatic in a different way because people don’t really know the ultimate implications.”
SAMHSA is committed to addressing the mental health and substance abuse needs of Gulf Coast residents. The Agency has developed public education messages specific to the oil spill to raise awareness about recognizing signs and symptoms of emotional health problems and where to go for help. Tip sheets on topics such as grief, stress management, and support for response workers are posted on the SAMHSA Web site. They are available in English, Cambodian, Haitian/Creole, Lao, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
In June, a fisherman’s suicide, apparently as a result of the distress he felt over the spill, highlighted the immediate need for mental health resources.
During a recent visit to the Gulf Coast, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, “We are especially concerned about mental health, as it is clear from past experiences and from all our discussions here that mental health and substance abuse issues are likely to be some of the most long-lasting effects of this oil spill.”
Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are often experienced in the wake of disasters. In addition, people may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with their stress and emotions. And in the region still recovering from the damage done by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, these problems may be exacerbated.
SAMHSA has devoted a section of its Web site to materials addressing the oil spill disaster response. See Tip Sheets Can Help for information on the information sheets SAMHSA created.
Annotated Bibliography. The SAMHSA Web site helps to put information on the spill in one spot. The online annotated bibliography provides an extensive list of sources for information, such as materials for first responders, lessons learned from the Alaskan Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and information on retraumatization.
The SAMHSA Web site provides links to dozens of Federal agencies and other organizations—such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Psychiatric Association—involved in the response as well as brief descriptions of what you will find on the sites.
SAMHSA’s efforts represent only part of the Federal Government’s response to the BP oil spill. HHS is helping to monitor conditions that might affect public health and the safety of seafood.
The HHS Web site consolidates information from various agencies and includes health information and resources for coastal residents, health professionals, and response workers.
HHS also provides links to state and local resources in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
Find more information on the HHS oil spill response efforts.
“We know that many people affected by disaster are resilient and will naturally recover,” LCDR Seligman said. “But some will need continuing support, and we need to make sure that they are connected to local social service and mental health agencies that may be able to assist them and make sure they are getting the care they need.”
Find more information on SAMHSA’s oil spill response efforts and download the tip sheets.