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Depression rises on Gulf Coast

Survey says cases up 25% since spill

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press / September 29, 2010

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ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Before the BP oil spill, the Gulf Coast was a place of abundant shrimping, tourist-filled beaches, and a happy if humble lifestyle. Now, it’s home to depression, worry, and sadness for many.

A Gallup survey released yesterday of almost 2,600 coastal residents showed that depression cases are up more than 25 percent since an explosion killed 11 people and unleashed a three-month gusher of crude into the Gulf in April that ruined many livelihoods. The conclusions were consistent with trends seen in smaller studies and witnessed by mental health workers.

People just aren’t as happy as they used to be despite palm trees and warm weather. A “well-being index’’ included in the Gallup study said many coastal residents are stressed out, worried, and sad more often than people living inland, an indication that the spill’s emotional toll lingers even if most of the oil has vanished from view.

Margaret Carruth is among those fighting to hang on.

Her hairstyling business dried up after tourists stopped coming to the beach and locals cut back on nonessentials like haircuts. All but broke and unable to afford rent, Carruth packed her belongings into her truck and a storage shed and now depends on friends for shelter.

“I’m a strong person and always have been, but I’m almost to the breaking point,’’ Carruth said.

The Gallup survey was conducted in 25 Gulf-front counties from Texas east to Florida over eight months before and after the spill, ending Aug. 6.

The survey found that 19.6 percent of people reported receiving a clinical diagnosis of depression after the spill compared with 15.6 percent before, an increase of 25.6 percent. The study didn’t conclude the additional cases were tied directly to the oil, however.

The survey said people along the Gulf reported feeling sad, worried, and stressed after the spill, while people living inland reported less of those symptoms over the same period. Another survey found that more than 40 percent of people in coastal Mississippi reported feeling stress after the BP geyser blew, a 15 percent increase from before.

The survey is part of an ongoing health index survey sponsored by Healthways, a wellness and alternative health care company based in Nashville. Respondents were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone, and the survey of coastal residents has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The oil spill followed waves of hard luck for the Gulf region, including hurricanes and recession. Specialists say it’s impossible to determine how much of the current mental health downturn could have roots in problems other than crude washing into marshes and beaches, damaging the seafood and tourist industries.

But an earlier study conducted in 13 counties and parishes with a total population of 1.9 million showed that 13 percent of coastal adults from Louisiana to Florida suffered probable serious mental illnesses after the spill.

The level of mental illness was similar to that seen six months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coast five years ago, and experts aren’t yet seeing any improvement in mental health five months after the oil crisis began. Before Katrina, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health said only 6 percent of area residents had likely mental illnesses.

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