Help Line Connects Counselors with Oil Spill Troubles

Tallahassee, FL – Crisis counselors from New Orleans to Tallahassee report finding significant depression and anxiety and even failed marriages linked to the summer-long oil spill in the Gulf. As James Call reports, help may be just a phone call away. Part of the Obama administration's long-term recovery plan is an Oil Spill Distress Helpline, connecting callers to local health care service providers.

The numbers indicate an unprecedented disaster: 25,000 barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf on a daily basis and pushing regional economies reeling from the Great Recession towards a depression. Although the busted well was plugged in July, the five western counties of the Florida Panhandle recorded double-digit decline in tax receipts during the summer months. Mental health experts say a depressed economy adds stress and makes people more vulnerable to mood disorders and other health concerns. It's people who operate seafood restaurants for 30 years who are closing their doors, It's single mothers who finally took the leap and open their own small business on the coast only to close it down 18 months later. Cathy Schroeder is with 211 Big Bend Incorporated. It is operating an Oil Spill Distress Helpline for people dealing with economical and emotional problems related to the BP oil spill.

"While they are waiting for their claim checks While they are wondering if the Gulf is going to be open to fish and hunt for oysters again. What is Christmas going to be like? I mean, this is weighing heavily on the minds of people. It's the oysterman. It's the teacher who has the kids every day. It's the police officer the sheriff. It's everybody."

The mental health effects of a disaster tend not to be as widely discussed as the economic or environmental impacts. But experts who studied the Exxon Valdez spill a generation ago says they can linger for up to five years. People whose livelihoods are jeopardized can turn to anger, violence, drugs and even suicide. Randy Nicklaus is president of 211 which is staffing the national hotline in Tallahassee.

"We listen, a lot of times, just by talking it through and having someone there who is a good listener is the first step towards feeling a little bit better," he said. "Helping them learn a little bit more about what they are feeling by expressing it and having someone who understands that and helps them get through that sometimes it's part of the healing process."

Like the oil spill, the help Nicklaus is offering is in uncharted territory. This is the first time the federal government has established a national hotline as part of a post disaster response. It started in late October and within its first month logged more than 100 calls. The need for a clearinghouse for services in the wake of disaster became clear following the Sept. 11 attack. The counselors who answer the helpline are like a surrogate friend, a well-informed friend who has been trained to help and knows where more help can be found.

"There is a lot more isolation in our society as people live further away from friends and family," said Schroeder. "People sometime need a place to get support that is not part of their family and we're here. A hot-line can obviously be accessed no matter where you live as long as you have a telephone."

The aftermath of the BP spill is shrouded in uncertainty. Even though little or no oil washed up on Florida beaches the seafood, tourism and related industries report sales are down substantially from the year before and unemployment is up. Time will tell if demand for seafood and Florida tourism will rebound. Hundreds of thousands of reimbursement claims to BP have been rejected or are being held up for various reasons. And Bailey Thompson, an oil spill helpline counselor recently handled a call from the spouse of an oil spill clean-up worker. The caller was concerned about the long-term health consequences for her husband from handling crude oil.

"And she can't talk to him about it because she doesn't want him to get worried and they need the money, so they are doing it," Thompson said. "And she feels really worried about and she feels she can't talk to anyone else and you know she is going to try to talk to a doctor about it but at the same time she how worried she is and how scared she is for him."

BP has paid about $600 million to people living in the five Florida panhandle counties where oil washed up on shore. The claims administrator said that other Gulf Coast residents and businesses who filed claims will begin receiving checks over the next several weeks. The Oil Spill Distress Helpline is funded through the end of 2011 and is available nationwide at 800-985-5990. A pilot project, it will serve as the model for future hot-lines following a disaster.