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Jun 27, 2010 11:06 PM by Chris Welty

Oil Spill's Psychological Toll Quietly Mounts

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster feels far
worse to shrimper Ricky Robin than Katrina, even though he's still
haunted by memories of riding out the hurricane on his trawler and
of his father's suicide in the storm's aftermath.
The relentless spill is bringing back feelings that are far too
familiar to Robin and others still dealing with the physical and
emotional toll wrought by Katrina five years ago.
"I can't sleep at night. I find myself crying sometimes," said
Robin, of Violet, a blue-collar community on the southeastern edge
of the New Orleans suburbs, along the highway that hugs the levee
on the Mississippi River's east bank nearly all the way to the
Gulf.
Psychiatrists who treated people after Katrina and have held
group sessions in oil spill-stricken areas say the symptoms showing
up are much the same: Anger. Anxiety. Drinking. Depression.
Suicidal thoughts.
"Everybody's acting strange," said Robin, 56. "Real angry,
frustrated, stressed out, fighting brothers and sisters and mamas
and family."
Fishing families, the backbone of the coastal economy, are
especially hard-pressed as the waters that make up their livelihood
are sporadically closed because of fears the oil will taint fish,
oysters and shrimp.
Oil field workers, whose salaries are among the best the region
can offer, worry about their industry's long-term future.
And there is still the rebuilding after Katrina, which in August
2005 devastated a swath from Louisiana to Alabama - almost as big
as the area affected by the oil - killing more than 1,600 and
forever changing the region's relationship with the water.
No one is fishing any more out of Zeke's Landing Marina in
Orange Beach, Ala., though most charter boat captains are making
some money pulling boom and doing other jobs in BP's cleanup
program.
Looking at oil all day can be harder than staying home, said Joe
Nash, a boat captain there. "Seeing everything that you've been
used to for years kind of slowly going away from you, it's
overwhelming," he said. "Because you can't do anything about
it."
That helplessness, coupled with the uncertainty about what's
going to happen with the spill and when the next check from BP PLC
will arrive, leaves boat captain George Pfeiffer angry all the
time.
"Our families want to know what's going on," said Pfeiffer,
55, who keeps two charter boats at Zeke's Landing. "When we get
home, we're stressed out and tired, and they want answers and we
don't have any."
His wife cries, a lot.
"I haven't slept. I've lost weight," said Yvonne Pfeiffer, 53.
"My shoulders are in knots. The stress level has my shoulders up
to my ears."
Social services agencies have not seen a significant increase in
people seeking help since the spill began, but that doesn't mean
the need isn't there, said Jeffrey Bennett, executive director of
the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport, Miss., whose state
saw oil wash up on the mainland for the first time Sunday.
"Unfortunately, the people most affected, shrimpers and
fishermen, are not people who traditionally seek mental health
services," Bennett said. "They're kind of tough characters, and
look at being depressed or not being able to handle their own
problems as weakness."
On Sunday evening, many in Alabama's coastal fishing community
planned to attend services for a popular charter captain who
committed suicide on his docked boat. Authorities had no way to
know whether his death had anything to do with the spill, but they
hoped it would move others to seek help.
John Ziegler, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Mental
Health, said no one had walked into counseling centers set up in
fishing communities since the disaster. Then on Friday, two days
after the captain's death, five people came in saying they needed
help because of the spill.
As news of the captain's death spread east to Pensacola, Fla.,
Baptist Health Care's Lakeview Center publicized its 24-hour help
line, and several calls about the spill came in the following day.
"People saying they were sad, they were angry, they were
grieving, they have lost a lot," marketing director Tish Pennewill
said. "Grandmothers talking about how they took the children to
the beach for the summer and could no longer do that. People
wondering if it was ever going to be the same."
Even people whose livelihoods aren't affected by the spill find
themselves crying on beaches, like Nancy Salinas, who was on
Pensacola Beach last week when Florida officials closed it because
oil was washing up. "It just breaks your heart," she said. "I
can't get my feet in the water."
Mental health professionals say it is too early to have reliable
data to understand the full severity of stress issues spawned by
the spill.
However, their work so far indicates the problem is taking root,
and the backdrop of Katrina means it is likely to get worse.
Tropical systems such as the one that swirled over the Yucatan
Peninsula on Sunday won't help matters, even though it was forecast
to bypass the spill.
"This is a second round of major trauma for children and
families still recovering from Katrina. It represents uncharted
territory," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National
Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a
member of the National Commission on Children and Disasters who has
worked with Katrina survivors.
Dr. Howard Osofsky, chair of the psychiatry department at LSU
Health Sciences Center, said focus groups he's monitored in
spill-affected areas confirmed those emotions.
Ziegler, the Alabama mental health chief, said counselors have
gone out to marinas, docks and other places frequented by fishermen
and others affected by the spill.
"They've had folks break down and weep," he said. "They've
had people share some of their deepest feelings about their future
and how they're feeling now that things seem imminent."
In Mississippi, Bennett's group is working with Catholic Social
Services in Biloxi on a proposal to train people in fishing
communities to work as "peer listeners" to try to identify people
who might be having problems and encourage them to seek help.
The social and psychological toll on residents of the Gulf will
last long after the oil is cleaned up, say veterans of the Exxon
Valdez spill in 1989.
"Every day you're dealing with this thing," said John Calhoun,
former mayor of Homer, whose community was devastated. "If you're
not working on it, you're worrying about it. Frankly, they sold a
lot of alcohol during this time. I saw some of the toughest guys I
know break down in tears because the stress had gotten to them."
Michael Herz, who served on the commission that investigated
Alaska's spill, visited the Gulf and said it was like seeing it all
over again, only worse.
"It took away livelihoods and it split families," he said.
"Some members of family took money from Exxon and others were so
upset they didn't. The rate of mental health, spousal abuse,
alcoholism all skyrocketed."
Robin, the Louisiana shrimper, fears the spill will have similar
effects on himself and his neighbors.
"This is a slow-moving hurricane," he said. "You're looking
at it, and you can't do nothing about it."

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