Gulf Coast Way of Life Dramatically Changed: OT Can Assist in Recovery
By Stephanie Yamkovenko
Every day since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon platform explosion, the Gulf coast and British Petroleum (BP) have been in the headlines across the world. Although the oil well is capped, the situation in the communities in South Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida remains dire. With the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this month, the largest oil spill in the U.S. only increases the anxiety of residents already drained from rebuilding their communities once before.
“With the post-Katrina effects, and then this oil spill, many people don’t have the energy to bounce back,” says Shannon Mangum, MPS, OTR/L, and assistant professor at Louisiana State University Health Science Center in New Orleans (LSU-HSC). “I really worry about it because there was a great pulling together after Katrina. I worry that the unifying force is not going to be a part of this.”
Residents along the Gulf Coast have not yet fully recovered economically or emotionally from Hurricane Katrina, according to Marjorie Scaffa, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, and professor at University of South Alabama. “Many people are reacting to this as a trauma, just as Hurricane Katrina was a trauma. The coastal environment here is part of the lifestyle, it is part of the residents' identities.”
Scaffa points out that the difference between a natural disaster like a hurricane and a technological disaster like the oil spill is that relief agencies such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army do not respond to technological disasters as they do for natural disasters. “When disaster relief agencies do not respond, this seems to indicate to the people affected and others, that they are not truly victims. There is not an outpouring of support and resources from other areas of the country,” says Scaffa.
Occupational therapy practitioners in the affected areas can address the concerns of their clients by using narrative reasoning to understand where they are emotionally, and be aware of mental health concerns to address or refer to other professionals, according to Mangum. “We sometime forget that we need to plan for these people’s lives after they leave us and live lives outside of the clinic.”
With the major disruption in occupational roles, habits, and routines, people who live and work on the Gulf Coast are experiencing a threat to their occupational identity. “In the words of Ann Wilcock, we are seeing occupational imbalance, occupational alienation, and occupational deprivation,” says Scaffa. “People do not have control over decisions about occupational participation as a result of external constraints imposed by this massive oil spill. Part of our job is to help people reconstruct their habits, roles, and routines under difficult circumstances.”
Helping Through the Schools
The school year ended before the full impact of the oil spill on communities became apparent, so as schoolchildren start the new school year there will be a great need for preventative mental health and support.
As part of a model for preventative mental health in schools established post-Katrina, occupational therapy students at LSU-HSC already do fieldwork in local public schools, teaching social competencies, anti-bullying tactics, and career development.
“We do hands-on activities for the kids, and then we provide parents with specific activities to bring home so they have resources,” says Mangum. “We provide ideas for teachers because we have a lot of non-seasoned teachers and hold after-hour opportunities for parents to learn about preventative mental health.”
This program now needs to be expanded to other schools in the area. However, occupational therapy practitioners in the school system are already overwhelmed, especially with education budget cuts in Louisiana. If occupational therapy practitioners have similar programs, Mangum asks that they share those resources on OT Connections with practitioners on the Gulf coast.
Lost Jobs, Lost Livelihood
Many people lost their jobs due to the oil spill, and while some found employment with BP, governmental agencies, or other organizations assisting in clean-up efforts, long-term employment options remain sparse.
||“In some of the smaller communities, there have been five generations of workers in the seafood industry, and the education level is not high, so the potential of doing something else that brings in a similar amount of money is really not available,” says Mangum. She adds that for some people, their jobs are truly gone.
Working with clean up crews has provided a source of income for some, but adherence to strict corporate safety codes has taken an emotional toll on those who are used to working as their own boss.
In the beginning, BP’s safety regulations were borderline ridiculous, according to Mangum, requiring beach clean-up crews to wear hazmat suits, life vests (despite being several yards from the water), and hard hats.
"They could work for only 15 minutes out of every hour because the workers were so heat exhausted,” says Mangum.
With the temporary cap in place, and a more permanent cap in progress, employment opportunities with clean up crews are shrinking, leaving many people without income for the first time. “We’re left with a real potential of internal and external violence from feeling nonproductive and poor,” says Mangum.
Paul Fontana, OTR, FAOTA, offers programs at his Center for Work Rehabilitation Inc. in Louisiana that test individuals who are going to work offshore for oil companies to ensure their ability to safely do the job. Since the oil spill and the drilling moratorium, Fontana has noticed a reduction in new hires working in the Gulf, going from 20 to 30 news hires a day for post-hire assessments to about 5 to 6 a day.
“This has added significant stress and strain to individuals who are looking for work or trying to return to work following an injury,” says Fontana. “The pressure to pass the post-hire assessments for their job is magnified with the high unemployment in the industry and the government’s policy regarding drilling.”
Occupational therapy practitioners can help people who have lost jobs look at their options and understand what is available in their communities while maintaining other healthy occupations.
Scaffa is involved in a program called Peer Listening, which was developed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The program trains community volunteers to provide empathic listening and referral for persons in need of support. While there are no occupational therapy–specific programs in these communities yet due to a lack of financial support, Scaffa hopes to create programs when funding becomes available. In the meantime, she and her students are serving as community volunteers.
Mangum encourages occupational therapy practitioners in the area to sign up to participate in focus groups held around the Gulf Coast in the next couple of months to represent the profession as leaders and a voice for recovery.
Rebuilding the Community
Twenty years ago in Alaska, the Exxon Valdez oil spill led to the erosion of the community, causing distrust and cynicism. A researcher who studied the impact of that disaster worries that the situation in the Gulf will be worse.
“We almost have Exxon Valdez fast forward here along the Gulf of Mexico,” said J. Steven Picou in an article on CNN.com. The good news, he says, is that the Gulf Coast has shown resilience before, with residents banding together to rebuild.
The oil sheen may fade, the tar balls disappear, and the pelicans return, but the issues in Gulf communities will not easily dissolve. Just as the flood water lines remain on buildings, the emotional effects of these disasters will linger with the residents on the Gulf coast.
“This is seen by the residents as a tragedy—it is not simply about making a living,” says Scaffa. “It is about a deep and abiding connection to the natural resources of the region, it is about the loss of a lifestyle that has been passed down from generation to generation. The impact of this disaster will be felt for many years.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.
Ravitz, J. (2010, July 26). In Gulf oil disaster, cameras can't capture the human toll. Retrieved July 26, 2010, from http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/07/26/mental.health.gulf/index.html