Image: Margaret Carruth
Dave Martin  /  AP
Margaret Carruth ponders her fate after attending a public hearing to voice her concerns about her BP oil spill claim in Orange Beach, Ala. Carruth is living in her pickup truck after losing her home.
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updated 9/28/2010 6:31:26 AM ET 2010-09-28T10:31:26

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 Tuesday 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 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.

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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.

'I'm almost to the breaking point'
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," says Carruth.

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. People reported 25.6 percent more depression diagnoses after then spill than before it, although the study didn't conclude the additional cases were tied directly to the oil.

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

The oil spill followed waves of hard luck for the Gulf region, including hurricanes and recession. Experts 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.

"From the types of patients we are seeing in our emergency departments, clinics and hospitals, the problems are persisting," said William Pinsky of the New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System, which conducted the random telephone survey of 406 people in four states during the summer.

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Sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, anger, substance abuse and domestic violence are among the most common problems reported by mental health agencies.

BP has provided $52 million for mental health care in the Gulf region, with $15 million going to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals; $12 million each to the states of Alabama and Mississippi; $3 million to Florida; and $10 million to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Even though the oil stopped flowing in July and the BP well was finally killed this month, some officials say the toll on mental health may get worse as the financial strains of summer persist into the fall.

"It's like a virus that's spreading," said Tonya Fistein, one of four counselors hired by AltaPointe Health Systems specifically to help people deal emotionally with the spill in Bayou La Batre, a tiny Alabama fishing community hard hit by the disaster.

AltaPointe's clinic is seeing twice as many new patients as in 2009, an increase it blames on the spill. In Gulfport, Miss., 42 percent of the patients surveyed at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center said they were sad or depressed because of the spill.

Lost moments
Steve Barrileaux, a psychologist at the Gulfport center, said some of the problems leading to mental health issues are obvious, like the loss of work by a person who rented chairs on the beach. Others are more subtle.

Many people are deeply worried about the environment, for instance, or lament the lost moments they would have spent fishing recreationally with loved ones. Others are still afraid to eat seafood, even on the coast where livelihoods depend on it.

"What's scary is the long-term damage that can be done, and we just don't know about that," Barrileaux said.

Chanthy Prak frets constantly about how to make ends meet in the post-spill world.

Prak worked in crab houses around Bayou La Batre before the oil hit. She and her husband, another seafood worker displaced by the spill, have received only $5,000 in claims payments since May to support them and their seven children.

"I worry. There's money going out but no money coming in," said the Cambodia native.

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In some areas, higher rates of mental problems appear to have little to do with the oil.

At Lakeview Center, which provides mental health services in Pensacola, Fla., calls have increased to a crisis intervention line compared to 2009, but relatively few people have mentioned the oil spill as the reason they need help, said spokeswoman Karen Smith. Psychologists believe the uptick is most likely linked to the recession, she said.

More oil came ashore just to the west of Pensacola in Baldwin County, Ala., however, and a survey conducted for the state by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found significant mental health problems that people blamed on the spill.

Twenty-three percent of households in the area reported having at least one person who blamed sleep troubles on the spill, and 11 percent had at least one person with appetite loss. Perhaps most tellingly, 32 percent reported a decrease in income linked to the oil spill, which could lead to additional strain, said Dr. Charles Woernle, the state epidemiologist with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

'People do not have hope'
Officials along the Gulf Coast worry that many of the hardest-hit groups — shrimpers, Asian seafood workers and low-wage tourism employees — won't seek help for mental problems because of cultural taboos.

At AltaPointe, officials hope to use a share of the BP money to pay for additional oil-spill counselors.

Tejuania Nelson, who runs a day-care center in fishing-dependent Grand Bay, Ala., said preschoolers whose parents were left jobless because of the spill are lashing out in unsettling ways.

"They're throwing desks, kicking chairs," she said. "It's sad. With this, people do not have hope. They cannot see a better time."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oil spill commission confronts crude reality

  1. Transcript of: Oil spill commission confronts crude reality

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Tonight, the gulf oil spill was back in the news today, specifically the question of how much oil is out there in that water. Remember that leak went on for 87 days, and some folks have led us to believe it's somehow gone away, perhaps dissolving naturally. We learned more about the truth in those waters today. Our report from NBC 's Lisa Myers .

    LISA MYERS reporting: The two chairmen of the administration's Oil Spill Commission today expressed skepticism about the government's claim that its response was not hamstrung by grossly inaccurate estimates of the size of the spill.

    Former Senator BOB GRAHAM (Former Senator, BP Oil Spill Commission Chairman): It's a little bit like Custer . He underestimated the number of Indians that were going to be over -- on the other side of the hill, and he paid the ultimate price for that.

    MYERS: Initially, BP and the government estimated only up to 5,000 barrels of oil a day was leaking from the well. Government scientists later said it was actually 62,000 barrels a day. Incident Commander Thad Allen insists he would not have done anything differently.

    Commander THAD ALLEN: And the reason is, we assumed at the outset this could be a catastrophic event.

    MYERS: An oceanographer challenged another government estimate, the White House declaration last month that 75 percent of oil spilled into the gulf had been cleaned up or degraded. Ian McDonald says more than half of the oil remains in the gulf and will not dissipate quickly.

    Mr. IAN McDONALD (Florida State University): It was the most concentrated and most sustained deep water release of oil that we've ever seen in human history.

    MYERS: A local official, Billy Nungesser of Louisiana 's Plaquemine 's Parish was critical of the government's response from day one. Says he never could figure out who was in charge.

    Mr. BILLY NUNGESSER: BP would say it was the Coast Guard , the Coast Guard would say it's BP . And we -- it became a joke in our EOC that the home of command it was the Wizard of Oz , some guy behind a curtain, because we never got a name.

    MYERS: The commission says it will begin making public some findings of its investigation in November.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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