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Gulf states seek more mental health money from BP

Officials in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Alabama have asked BP PLC for millions of dollars to pay for mental health outreach and service programs related to the oil spill disaster.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Officials in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Alabama have asked BP PLC for millions of dollars to pay for mental health outreach and service programs related to the oil spill disaster.

BP spokesman Richard Judy had no immediate response to questions about the money sought by the state agencies, saying only that BP hopes to make an announcement soon about its plan. Judy said the company is developing a comprehensive plan on community outreach and nonprofit support across the Gulf Coast.

Scott Sumrall, disaster response coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, said his agency is trying to be proactive.

Mississippi asked BP for $10 million this week to create a grant fund that can be tapped by public and private clinics that are beginning to see a slight increase in patients complaining of anxiety, anger and depression. The agency said another $10 million could be sought later, depending on need.

Alabama seeks $5.7 million immediately
Alabama's mental health agency submitted a proposal Thursday to BP seeking an immediate $5.7 million that would go toward a centralized call center to help people dealing with stress and other symptoms navigate the system to care. Alabama also asked for $20 million each year for up to the next five years.

"We're basing it on what we're seeing out in the field. We're sending counselors and representatives out to the marinas and boat docks, where there are large clusters of people with high levels of frustration," said John Ziegler, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

The oil spill disaster is now more than two months old and its impact has taken an emotional toll on residents who have lost jobs in the fishing, hospitality and tourism industries, officials said.

Lester Mallette, a longtime shrimper living in Gulfport, said he visited with a psychologist on Friday to help grapple with the fact that his former way of earning a livelihood has come to an end.

"I've been shrimping since I was 12. It's like all I know. I raised seven kids on the gulf. Things that have always been there, that ain't going to be there anymore," Mallette said. "You've got to learn something new all over and when you're 55, there ain't nothing new."

Louisiana was still waiting to hear from BP on Friday after twice asking for $10 million to cover six months of outreach and services.

"The first letter we sent was on May 28 and that was rejected. Then, we sent another letter reasserting that claim," Lisa Faust, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Florida seeks $1.7 million
Florida last week asked for $1.7 million to cover 90 days of service in eight coastal counties, said Matt Howard of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Judy wouldn't identify any of the nonprofits collaborating with BP.

The company has talked with members of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's staff "regarding which non-profits might be useful in a plan to address mental health needs related to the spill," said Barbour spokesman Dan Turner.

Health agency officials say they welcome BP's plan, but they're expecting the company to also pay for their projects.

Mississippi will begin work on a public service announcement next week to air on the coast informing residents how to contact the mental health agency and local clinics, Sumrall said.

Using peer-to-peer counseling will help avoid a mental health crisis, said Steve Barrilleaux, a psychologist at Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport.

Barrilleaux said residents would be trained in listening skills and they would reach out to their neighbors, co-workers and friends, but money is needed to do that.

"There's still a stigma attached to mental health services so we don't know if people affected by the oil spill would come to the center. The idea is to reach out to them," he said.