Strain from the Oil Spill Is Beginning to Show
Social Service Providers Report High Rates of Anxiety and Depression
About three weeks ago, I attended a community gathering in Houma, LA put together by the Coast Guard and other government agencies to give Louisianans impacted by the BP blowout a chance to connect with social service providers and to get more information about the spill. Though well intentioned, the event was poorly organized: Instead of hosting a clear and straightforward presentation, the Coast Guard and the Terrebonne Parish authorities had arranged the event like a job fair, with different booths addressing different parts of the crisis. There was table for submitting BP compensation claims staffed a pair of fellows who kind of looked like down-market George Clooney clones. An EPA table; a Catholic Charities table; a table for “alternate” cleanup technologies. Most of the local residents at the event just sort of milled around looking lost.
I decided to talk to the folks at the table set up by the Human Services Authority of South Central Louisiana. I asked the woman standing there — Lisa Schilling, the group’s executive director — if her agency had seen an increase in the number of people seeking assistance. She said, “no,” that it was still too early, but that she expected the situation to worsen if the oil continued to flow.
Well, the oil is still flowing, and when I called Schilling yesterday to get an update, she had bad news to share: “We are hearing more and more from individuals with depression and anxiety, worried about how they will make ends meet and the loss of their whole way of life. … People are just now getting into the mindset that this is not getting any better. There is no way, if you will, to stop the bleed from the oil spill. … Alcoholism is starting to come up on the rise. I think we’ll see more and more of that manifesting itself.”
The dark mood in the bayou communities of Louisiana is echoing throughout the Gulf region. In Bayou La Batre, AL, The New York Times reports, drug and alcohol abuse is up. In St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish, just east of Terrebonne, domestic violence is on the rise, MoJo’s Mac McClelland writes. The secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families has warned that there is “is a psychological cloud descending over the Panhandle. And frankly that is beginning to affect the rest of Florida.”
Slammed between environmental destruction and economic ruin, the Gulf region is in the midst of a full-blown public mental health emergency that — if the experience of Alaska’s Prince William Sound residents is any indication — could destabilize the area’s communities for years to come.
As I’ve noted before, the most common expressions of frustration and anger that I heard while in Louisiana had to do with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. While frightening, a hurricane is, in its own fashion, predictable. Gulf residents know how to cleanup and repair, and they take their lumps with a certain sangfroid. The BP blowout hurts so much worse because Gulf residents feel their fates are in the hands of others: BP claims adjustors, federal officials, cleanup workers. A fear of not knowing when and how the disaster will end compounds the feeling of disempowerment.
“With a hurricane, you are faced with a disaster in which you can go in an clean up and try to get your life back together,” Schilling said to me. “That’s a healing type thing. With this disaster, no one knows how long it will last. No one knows what the lasting affects that some of this will be.”
Katie Anderson, the associate director for parish social ministries at Catholic Charities of Houma, had a similar take when I called her this afternoon. “There’s a lot of sadness,” she said. “And uncertainty. They just don’t know if it’s going to hurt them.”
Catholic Charities is managing a food bank to assist BP-affected families and is also providing assistance for people who can’t cover their medical prescriptions, rent, utilities, or mortgages. But many people are too embarrassed to seek out help. The worst part of the whole situation, everyone seems to agree, is the sense of being paralyzed.
“It’s just a total feeling of helplessness,” Schilling told me. “Where do we go? What do we do? How can we help and how can we get help? … We have very prideful people here: Cajun French, the United Houma Nation. They want to work. They don’t want to go for a handout.”
In talking with Schilling and Anderson I was reminded of a long conversation I had last month with Mike Voisin, a major Louisiana oyster farmer whose main shucking warehouse is located in Houma. About halfway through an hour-long interview, as he described the BP gusher’s impact on his business, he unconsciously referred to the oil spill as a “storm.” I brought the verbal slip to his attention.
“This is a storm,” he said. “We’re used to 14-day events. Four or five days before, you are watching the Weather Channel, and everyone is praying. And then after three of four days you’ve returned home, and three or four days after that you’ve called your insurance company, if you have to. You’ve set a plan. And then the stress levels are gone. … With this storm, the greatest damage is going be to the psyche of the area. People are just overstressed.”
That conversation occurred on Day 52 of the spill. As of this writing we are at Day 72.