Insight: Facing Our Fears: Spill crisis focuses attention on mental health problems


THE DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill has focused increased attention on mental health problems related to this disaster. Reasons for emotional stress are many and varied.

Families who rely on the seafood and tourism industries for their income face uncertainty about their livelihoods. Workers searching for oil on vessels have difficult jobs and do not know how long they will continue to have jobs.

Many Gulf Coast residents are experiencing stress as a reaction to the devastation to the environment.

As the region’s nonprofit, behavioral health care provider, AltaPointe Health Systems has noted an increase in calls related to the oil spill.

On a recent early morning, one of our therapists dropped by the Bayou La Batre staging area where vessels launch each day in search of oil. She noticed a man sitting alone at the end of a dock after the boats had left. Concerned, she sat down next to him and began a conversation.

He was depressed. He had not met BP’s employment criteria because he had run a “cash-only” fishing business for years. He had not filed income taxes and didn’t have the required paperwork. He no longer had a livelihood and couldn’t pay his bills. The therapist listened and encouraged him to address his depression so he could begin to focus on finding a new way to make a living. We hope he took her advice.

When Surgeon General Regina Benjamin visited the Gulf Coast earlier this month, she encouraged residents attending a Bayou La Batre community meeting to seek counseling if they feel “stressed out and overwhelmed” because of the oil spill.

She emphasized how mental health problems can lead to physical illness as well as substance abuse, domestic violence, school dropouts and divorce.

Pamela Hyde, administrator for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, echoed Dr. Benjamin’s words during that same meeting.

We praise these leaders for bringing attention to mental health issues.

AltaPointe regularly provides behavioral health care services throughout Mobile and Washington counties. Many residents know us intimately; others do not know us at all.

Our mission for more than 50 years has been to identify and meet the mental health, substance abuse and intellectual disability needs in our area. In response to the needs created by the oil spill, we have expanded our regular counseling and crisis intervention services at our Bayou La Batre office.

Our professionals already have begun to provide behavioral healthcare at no cost to residents affected by the oil spill crisis. We have requested funds and are hoping to receive the necessary dollars to cover the expanded services.

Until then, we have allocated additional resources so that we can continue to offer these services.

Even though crises are devastating, maybe all of the media attention on this crisis will move the stigma of getting mental health care further behind us.

It is our hope that more people will realize that it’s OK to seek help when they need it.

Tuerk Schlesinger is chief executive officer of AltaPointe Health Systems Inc.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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