Weathering Emotional Storms Over Gulf Oil Spill The spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused a lot of visible damage, and now signs of the mental toll have also started to show. Thousands are seeking counseling from professional clinics and neighbors alike.
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Weathering Emotional Storms Over Gulf Oil Spill

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Weathering Emotional Storms Over Gulf Oil Spill

Weathering Emotional Storms Over Gulf Oil Spill

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Oily beaches and lost livelihoods are obvious effects of the Gulf oil spill. But there's also a less visible impact threatening communities there. Depression is taking root in small fishing towns. Last month, an Alabama boat captain who friends say was despondent about the spill took his own life. The surgeon general was in Alabama yesterday and she's in Florida today talking about this very issue.

NPR's Julie Rose reports on the mental health toll of the Gulf spill.

JULIE ROSE: On June 9th, day 51 of the Gulf oil spill, Garet Mones checked himself into the hospital. He was having a nervous breakdown.

Mr. GARET MONES: I mean, I feel like everything's been taken from me, you know? Not just my livelihood, you know, my life.

ROSE: Mones got his first boat when he was eight. He's been a commercial fisherman for nearly all of his 29 years in the small Louisiana bayou town of Hopedale. His buzzed haircut and chiseled features make him look pretty tough. But the oil spill has left Mones completely deflated. You can hear it in his voice as he talks about the six days he spent in the hospital.

Mr. MONES: Yeah,�I'm watching it on the news, and I'm seeing it still and it's still there, but I just put my mind in there and, you know, just let everything out here just be whatever it is.

Ms. CARMEN MACKLES: He was really, like, suicidal.

ROSE: This is Mones' fiancee, Carmen Mackles.

Ms. MACKLES: His dad was a fisherman. All his friends are fishermen, his uncles. You know, that's all he's ever been. He's never had any other job.

ROSE: Now the stress of being out of work, of wondering if things will ever return to normal, of waiting for a check from BP to help pay the bills is wearing on Mones and thousands like him up and down the coast.

(Soundbite of singing)

ROSE: Some, like Mones, turn to church. He says the singing and praying make him feel hopeful. Others drink. More than 3,000 have sought out crisis counselors at centers set up by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. Gulf states have asked BP for millions of dollars to pay for mental health services. So far, none of those requests have been granted, though BP is offering crisis counseling to locals working on the cleanup effort. But social workers say commercial fishermen are an independent lot, reluctant to ask for this kind of help. If they're turning to anyone, it's friends and family like Diane Phillips.

Ms. DIANE PHILLIPS: A lot of people call me Mama D. Come on, baby. Let me hug his neck, too.

ROSE: Phillips is not a professional counselor. She fishes and guides boat tours. But she's a good listener and has lived in Hopedale a long time. Lately, she says, the extra folding chair on the porch in front of her weathered trailer is almost always occupied.

Ms. PHILLIPS: Most of the commercial fishermen have fractured families at this point. Not that they're divorced, but a lot of the young mothers have made the decision to stay in Mississippi or in north Louisiana so they don't have to worry about everything we've dealt with since Katrina.

ROSE: And just as some of those wives were looking to come back, just when things seemed to be turning around, the spill happened.

University of South Alabama sociologist Steve Picou documented significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression in Alaska fishing towns after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He expects the same in the Gulf because of what he calls a corrosive social cycle.

Professor STEVEN PICOU (Sociology, University of South Alabama): See, there's an all-clear that's signaled after a natural disaster, and you know when it has ended.

ROSE: That gives communities closure and people tend to pull together in recovery. But with a man-made disaster like an oil spill, Picou says the effects unfold over time, and it's more common to see communities tear apart. People get caught up blaming the company and fighting for a piece of the compensation pie. In Alaska, Picou says, the legal battle with Exxon became like a second disaster for the people.

Prof. PICOU: And by 2000, what we found was that the primary source of stress relating to the spill was being a litigant and not being a commercial fisherman.

Ms. PETRINA BALSER: It's always gonna bring out the best in some, the worst in others.

ROSE: Petrina Balser grew up in the fishing towns of St. Bernard Parish. Now she runs a Catholic Charities crisis center there.

Ms. BALSER: I have actually seen families, longtime friends who are not speaking anymore because of the anger issues, the blame - you getting on, I'm not. And it's a really, really sad thing to see.

ROSE: But Balser also says the Gulf's fishing communities are full of incredibly resilient people. They do have a tough road ahead, but they've weathered many a previous storm.

Julie Rose, NPR News.

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