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BP negotiates mental health support in the Gulf

July 21, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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As CMHCs strain to meet service demands, NAMI teams with Louisiana to ask for millions in funding

After the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) twice asked BP for $10 million in funding to support expanded mental health services in Gulf Coast areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and received no reply, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) added its voice to DHH’s request in a letter to BP’s Chief Operating Officer last week.

“We needed to speak out and say very pointedly to BP, ‘It’s time for you to take responsibility,’” says Michael Fitzpatrick, MSW, NAMI’s executive director. Now, the oil giant is in conversations with the federal government regarding financial support for what both the DHH and the Institute of Medicine have identified as “the primary health issue of this disaster”: the need for mental health services in affected areas. “We’re very pleased,” says Fitzpatrick, “and we ask that they continue to negotiate in good faith.”

After almost three months of oil continuously leaking into the Gulf, the damage done to homes, businesses, and livelihoods has added to the already heightened stress levels brought on by the recession and ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike. This has created what Fitzpatrick calls “a wave of crisis washing over the region—a crisis that needs an immediate and ongoing response.

“What you have in [Louisiana’s] public mental health system on a good day is relatively minimal, [and then] you put additional stress on top of it because you have people in need of support who have not been in the system before,” he says, adding that Louisiana received a “D” in NAMI’s 2009

Grade the States survey of state mental health services. “We feel that BP has a legal and moral obligation to help finance the increased need for mental health services, support for families, for individuals, for people who may need to relocate.”

Michael Fitzpatrick, MSW, NAMI's executive director

The DHH’s requested $10 million will fund a six-month outreach initiative led by the Louisiana Spirit program, which provides therapeutic and psychiatric services through human services districts and community-based organizations.

“The speed with which we can fully implement these services will greatly affect the longer-term behavioral health needs and reduce the long-term costs of what is certain to be an ongoing challenge,” wrote DHH Secretary Alan Levine

in a letter to U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius.

Effects on CMHC services
As in Louisiana, mental health services in the other affected Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi are also severely strained by budget cuts and an increased demand for services. It’s unlikely that community mental health centers (CMHCs) in the region are equipped to service both their continuing care populations and those populations experiencing trauma as a result of the oil spill.

According to the National Council’s Project Helping Hands, an emergency mental health initiative, CMHCs can expect to experience the following challenges in the wake of disasters such as the oil spill:

• Staffing shortages due to trauma and burnout;
• A need for additional resources such as technology and transportation, along with damage to current resources;
• An influx of new consumers with no medical records or histories;
• Access to funding for new patients;
• Medication shortages;
• Lack of supportive and transitional housing, whether due to damaged properties or an increased population of displaced consumers; and
• Increased hospitalizations due to loss of continuous support services.

Lakeview Center, a Pensacola, Fla.-based CMHC, is currently planning to meet those challenges that lie ahead. Though it has not experienced as much increased need as the states to the west, according to director of workforce development Marvin Chaffin, LMHC, Lakeview is leading prevention efforts to ensure the community is prepared for the psychological aftereffects of the spill.

“I believe that we’re going to see the beginning of increased services probably after the summer season is over here and they’ve tallied up all the revenue that was lost on the beaches and by fishermen,” Chaffin says. “Then we’ll start to see some real impact and folks who are depressed and anxious, and I fully expect that the need for services will mature over the next three months to a year.”

Clean up crews at work on the beaches of Pensacola, Fla. © BP p.l.c.

To prepare, Lakeview has developed intervention training for potential volunteers and fact sheets for public distribution. There is some talk, Chaffin says, of AmeriCorps VISTA supplying volunteers to the area through multiple human services organizations.

Long-term efforts essential
While BP negotiates funding to support the Louisiana’s current mental health needs, history has shown that disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill can have long-term effects. These effects will be felt for generations, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, where clean-up efforts are still needed to completely rid the region of oil.