Mental health issues spill into Gulf Coast recovery

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Community organizers and nonprofit workers fear the mental health impacts of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill might push an already weary population to its breaking point.

Marine biologist and former commercial fisherman Riki Ott, who had her livelihood destroyed because of the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 in Alaska, has been traveling throughout the Gulf from Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama, rallying communities and encouraging victims to take control of their recovery, instead of waiting for BP and the government to guide them.

Ott said in the 20 years after the Exxon tanker accident, statistics on divorce rates, substance abuse, violence, and suicide, most notably the suicide of Cordova Mayor Robert Van Brocklin four years after the spill, went through the roof, as a result of dragged out litigation and financial woes, or as she called it “mental jail.”

The Salvation Army tends to the mental health needs of disaster survivors with its Emotional and Spiritual Care Teams, members who have been trained in critical incident stress management and crisis response.

Kevin Ellers, territorial disaster services coordinator for The Salvation Army Central Territory said those who are removed from a disaster situation might not always understand just how critical mental health services are to relief efforts, which leads to them being overlooked.

“I think a lot of times, it’s often missed by administration,” Ellers said. “Those on the front lines realize that if it’s not integrated, the survivors and workers themselves get overwhelmed. Sometimes the government doesn’t understand that important piece.”

Emotional and Spiritual Care Team members work alongside standard disaster relief workers who provide food and shelter, in order to allow survivors to feel more comfortable with opening up and talking about their feelings, Ellers said. Unlike during Katrina, the infrastructure in the Gulf is still standing, although environmental damage is vast, which means the charity will have the opportunity to work with local mental health agencies to treat those struggling. Although many in the region have already survived a major disaster, Ellers said it is important for mental health care workers to treat each person and situation differently.

“Everyone has to be looked at in a unique way, and we have to ask what makes this disaster particularly hard for this person?” he said. “When people have been through a similar experience, sometimes they may have learned coping skills and it can be a positive resiliency thing, or it can be the straw that broke the camels back if they are not doing well.”

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