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Peggy Conlon Headshot

Devastating Spill, Devastating Feelings

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"I didn't know what to do with myself"
"I have to make house payments and boat payments"
"I worry about myself and my wife. I don't know how we can make it."
"What can I do to survive?...I have a thousand questions and no answers...this problem is the worst of my life!"


These poignant quotes are from Gulf residents who were profiled in the final report released by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill two weeks ago. Led by Co-Chairs Senator Bob Graham and Bill Reilly, the Commission was charged by President Obama to determine the causes of the disaster and recommend reforms.

The gut-wrencher for me was Chapter Six. It delves into the impact of the spill -- not just on nature and the economy -- but on human health (both physical and mental). Shortly after the spill, many coastal residents reported being stressed, worried and sad. Reports of domestic violence increased. And in one study, parents reported that more than one-third of their children were suffering mental or physical health effects.

And the long term impacts? The report acknowledges that many of the long-term psychological effects of the oil spill remain unknown. But we do know from other disasters --including Katrina -- that depression, substance abuse and psychological disorders can disrupt people's lives for years to come.

Worse yet, the nature of the Gulf oil spill may prolong psychological distress. As the report explains, "technological disasters" (versus natural disasters, where mental health trauma dissipates relatively quickly) tend to create chronic impacts as issues of fault and compensation are negotiated or litigated over an extended period.

Adding to the load is that many of these families and the emergency responders have lifelong roots to the region -- they've lived their entire lives in theses coastal working towns which can exacerbate the worry and stress caused by the spill. And as a recent NPR story reported, "This is not a place where asking for help comes easily."

That's why the Ad Council jumped at the opportunity to partner with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on a PSA campaign to help. SAMHSA is providing mental health resources to the thousands of families living in the Gulf who may be in need. The PSAs, including a TV spot featuring U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, illustrate that it's common (and okay) to experience stress or depression as a result of the spill and informs residents of free, confidential resources via a toll-free helpline (1-800-985-5990) or text message program (TALKWITHUS to 66746).

The spill occurred over just over nine months ago -- which is a distant memory for most of us and by 24-hour news cycle standards. But I bet it's not a distant memory for the families who are still struggling with unemployment, mortgage payment and loss. Hopefully, this campaign provides some much needed mental health assistance to these families as they rebuild their lives.