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NEW ORLEANS -- Even though the oil well is capped for now, doctors are concerned about the chronic stress this environmental disaster will cause for years to come.

And there are questions about who will pay for the mental health care that is needed now and in the future.

Now local doctors are learning from the oil spill in Alaska 21 years ago.

Mental health professionals are gearing up for a long aftermath from the oil leak. Providers on the front lines met at Tulane Medical School to hear from the experts. One is a scientist from the University of Southern California, who did a study a year after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He said we can learn from what he found.

'Your risk for psychiatric disorders increased dramatically, in some instances, as much as 350 percent. (There were) increases in rates of anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, depression. We found significant increases in alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. We found a breakdown of social relations in communities. We found increased use of mental health services even reported physical health complaints that are more like chronic disease like diabetes and cancer,' said Dr. Larry Palinkas, a professor in the School of Social Work at USC.

The doctor says clean up workers are especially impacted from seeing the dying wildlife and working in haz-mat suits in the heat.

Some social workers are concerned because families and their children are still mentally suffering from Hurricane Katrina.

'We have children there in the school who are still being affected by the hurricane and the effects of the hurricane. So I can just imagine, with the school opening up, compiled now with the oil and the school problem they were having before that, it's going to be a big problem,' said Delores Becnel, a LSU Health Sciences Center licensed clinical social worker.

But the big concern now is money -- such as how, and who, will pay for all these needed services.

'Twenty billion dollars from BP covers economic loses, but it does not cover mental health services or other health services,' said Dr. Benjamin Springgate, the executive director of Community Health, Innovation and Research at Tulane School of Medicine.

After 20 years of litigation, Exxon never had to pay for mental health services. Now, doctors say, there is a mounting need for the services here.

'There's widespread anxiety, obviously there is a lot of uncertainty in the community. When is this going to end? How is this going to affect our livelihoods? Are we ever going to be able to go back to our fishing, to shrimping, to living our lives,' said Dr. Springgate about the people impacted by the BP oil well leak.

One psychiatrist on the panel told the story about one of his patients, a crabber, who would go out and work hard, exhausting work, everyday. But still he said he'd get home exhilarated thinking about it. Now he says he works for BP. He gets home, takes a bath, and then uses alcohol to cope.

So the message today is reach out for treatment. Doctors say there are going to be people who are more vulnerable to the oil spill because of previous trauma such as from Hurricane Katrina, and for the Vietnamese who suffered trauma decades ago in Southeast Asia.

LSUHSC has a 24 hour, mental health hotline, 7 days a week at (504) 568-8772.

Click here for more information

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