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Mental health camps helping kids affected by oil spill

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Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 07:05 PM

Hotel owners are hurting.

Fishermen are struggling.

Small-business owners are reeling.

And kids are feeling the pain, too.

Now, the state Department of Children & Families and Lutheran Services Florida are teaming up to help youngsters struggling to deal with the emotional fallout from the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

They're doing it solely with the help of private donations or state funding. BP hasn't paid for mental health services in any state affected by the nation's largest environmental disaster.

"How can you ignore the fact there are mental health issues?" asked Beth Deck, northwest regional director for the Lutheran group based in Pensacola. "Wow. What does that say?"

Beginning next week in Escambia County, which has taken the brunt of the oil invasion, there will be camps where kids can talk about how they have been affected. The program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade is similar to those offered after hurricanes, but the two situations can't be compared at all.

"This is a disaster unlike any other," Deck said. "When you have a hurricane, you can find somebody whose house blew away. You can get in there and help them clean it up.

"We can't get in there and get this cleaned up and make this go away," she added. "This is a whole different ballgame. It makes it so much more difficult. You can't even wrap your mind around how big it can be."

Children have been affected in many ways, Deck said.

One girl about 5 years old was devastated when she realized she could no longer attend an annual fishing rodeo with her father - a family tradition. She has a new baby brother and was upset that he might never be able to go fishing with his father.

Another girl, about 7 or 8, was worried because her mother had not worked as a waitress at her beachfront restaurant the past three weeks.

The girl "seemed troubled, just kind of wondering what is going to happen," Deck said.

Parents have lost jobs. Rent or mortgages are not being paid.

There is so much uncertainty.

"So many of the families now are affected by unemployment or threatened unemployment," said Barbara Ash, a DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee. "There is a lot of anxiety and fear among families."

At the camps, children will get the chance to talk about their feelings in group situations with crisis counselors. Kids who are showing signs of stress or need more help can get one-on-one counseling, said Kelly Lynn, a spokeswoman with Lutheran Services in Tampa.

"In general, I think kids do handle things well," Lynn said. "They are resilient and bounce back. But a lot of times they do not know how to talk about what they are going through."

Lutheran Services has helped thousands of children in similar camps after hurricanes since the 1990s.

"This is our first experience with an oil spill disaster," Lynn said.

Workers typically observe that youngsters may have sleep disorders and behavioral changes if they are affected by stress. They might be angry; they might act out.

Many children may be affected by the oil disaster even if their parents or family members are not in businesses tied to tourism, Deck explained.

If they go to the beach and can't swim and see oil there, they have questions. If they see or hear about dead sea life, they are worried.

"There is the stress over what might happen - will all the animals die in the water?" Deck said. "They wonder what is going to happen to us, what is going to happen to everything we love."

The camps will be offered free of charge, paid for in part by emergency funding from DCF. Officials are hopeful BP will pay for costs after the fact.

"We are approaching BP to ask for funding, but we are holding the camps either way," Ash said.

DCF asked the company, whose oil rig exploded April 20 off the Louisiana coast, for $1.7 million in June to provide other mental health services to families, Ash added.

"We haven't heard back on that yet," she said.

BP has accepted responsibility for cleaning up the oil and said it will pay legitimate claims resulting from property damage, profit loss, environmental damage and public services and other losses.

A spokesman for BP said the company was studying that request, as well as others from officials in several Gulf Coast states.

"You can rush and do something, but is it the right thing to do?" asked Phil Cochrane, a BP spokesman who acknowledged no money had been spent in any state for mental health purposes. "We want to be deliberate and thoughtful."

Janice Thomas, circuit administrator for DCF in the Panhandle, calls it something else: slow.

"It is frustrating. We know the need is there," she said. "Any kind of research proves there is a mental health impact with something like this.

"It makes me concerned about whether there will be a response. I don't know what else they want. What is it that they need to make that decision?"


Reporter Rob Shaw can be reached at (813) 259-7999.

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