Mental health a growing concern after Gulf spill
* Anecdotal evidence shows rise in stress-related problems
* Little data yet on mental health illness caused by spill
* Prospect of financial worry raises stress levels
By Matthew Bigg
VENICE, La., July 11 (Reuters) - Gulf Coast native Kindra Arnesen is so anxious about the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill she is packing up her family and leaving town.
"Stress? Dude my clothes are falling off me (because of weight loss). The level of stress here is tremendous. My husband has aged 10 years in two months," Arnesen said on Friday as she loaded possessions into a van outside her trailer home in Venice.
Fears are growing of an increase in stress-related illness and mental health problems from the BP Plc (BP.L)(BP.N) spill. Anecdotal evidence abounds but U.S. mental health officials say they lack data about the scale and scope of suffering.
Arnesen recently set up the Wives of Commercial Fishermen network to respond to pressures in the community. Two days ago, a friend told her he was so upset about his failure to get hired by BP's cleanup program he was considering suicide.
Arnesen has her own worries. Her husband cannot work as a shrimper because authorities have closed swathes of Gulf waters to fishing and her children and other relatives have fallen sick from what she believes are airborne toxins from the leak.
"The mental health impact here ... (and) the level of uncertainty is taking a toll on people and that's a huge, huge concern," Arnesen said. She declined to say where she and her two children would settle but said her husband would stay behind to work for BP on the cleanup.
Thousands of Gulf Coast fishermen face financial ruin because of the spill. Some say the stress is worse than after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Then it was possible to get back to work despite the destruction. Now it is impossible to say when waters will reopen especially since oil continues to gush into the Gulf.
At the same time, many fishermen now rely on BP's cleanup program as a financial lifeline and while that has provided a windfall for a few, others have yet to find employment.
"We hear it over and over again," said environmental scientist Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a nonprofit group with deep community roots. "It is the stress because of the possibility of not being able to earn a living and pay their bills."
Some experts caution it is possible to falsely perceive an uptick in a health phenomenon just by looking for it. But crisis counseling teams working with Gulf fishermen say anecdotal reports point to increased anger and anxiety and "a lot of marital discord," said Acquanetta Knight, director of policy and planning at the Alabama Department of Mental Health.
Data on the problems should be available in the next two weeks, she told reporters on Friday.
Residents suffering mental distress may hesitate to seek help because of a fiercely individualistic culture and strong ethic of self-reliance on the Gulf, where many earn their living working long hours alone on the water.
"This is sometimes a population that's not so accustomed to utilizing traditional services," said Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Hyde said her agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is looking at national suicide and domestic violence hotlines and state mental health agency reports to find data.
Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi state mental health agencies have requested millions of dollars from BP to help pay for expanded mental health monitoring and services.
In a June 28 letter to the energy company, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals asked for $10 million and warned that health effects from the spill will be an "ongoing challenge."
The department first requested funds for mental health care on May 28. BP has not yet responded to the request.
(Additional reporting by Emma Ashburn in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott)