Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Attending to Oil Spill Depression

A long, long time ago when we were in college we snagged a plum part-time job as an attendant on the "women's ward" of the University's psychiatric hospital. In those days, psychiatric hospital wards were segregated by sex -- to keep the patients from having any fun with each other, we suppose.

The vast majority of women in-patients suffered from depression in varying degrees. For an impecunious undergraduate student, attending to them was a breeze. The pay was good, the hours perfect, and the work required no more hard labor than occasionally holding a patient down while the doctors tortured them with electro-shock "therapy."

Mostly, attendants on the women's ward where we worked were expected to play bridge with the patients. It was a card game we, personally, had never played before. We learned the rules fast.

But the supervising ward nurses put us under instructions to let the patients win their bids as often as reasonably possible. Apparently, the hope was winning at cards would lift their spirits. As you can imagine, we became a terrible bridge player.

Irrelevant aside: ECT is a dirty business, as the saying goes, but someone almost no one, as it turns out, has to do it. Today, treatment is so much more scientifically advanced with the administration of commercially-advertised psychotropic drugs that numb the nation, don't you think? No? Well then, maybe there's more than just oil clean-up that's been neglected in our corporate culture's headlong rush for newer and newer technologies generating higher and higher profits.

We were reminded of all this today while reading PNJ columnist Reginald Dogan's self-confessed "jaded" view of the presidential visit:
Obama's visit — much like visits by every president before and after him — is nothing more than a dog-and-pony show.

They stop in a little town. Block streets. Shut down traffic. Tie up law enforcement for hours only for a couple minutes of face time and sound bites that, when it's all said and nothing's done, are really much ado about nothing.
* * *
Seen one, seen them all.

In all truth, a presidential visit to Pensacola is usually more trouble than it's worth. I'd rather have a V-8.
Now, there's a man who needs to play a bridge game with us to cheer him up. Mr. Dogan is hardly alone, however. Almost everyone we know on the beach, in town, and even strangers we've come across are showing signs of something that looks to us very much like clinical depression.

Remember that first weekend in May, six weeks ago? That was when we filmed the teary waitress and the distressed young woman who took the day off to mourn for the beach. It was a lovely weekend which many locals believed would be the last one for Pensacola Beach for generations to come.

Talking with new and old friends has been like that ever since. As the oil neared Dauphin Island two weeks ago, one friend emailed us (with a header that reads "Depression"):
This is very ominous ... . I think my idyllic days of swimming in the Gulf and walking on the beach are gone for the foreseeable future. It is just so... SENSELESS!!!!!!!!!!!!
A week later we hosted a cookout for a dozen friends. The talk was mostly about the oil spill, petroleum-poisoned seabirds, dead fish, lying corporate executives, the scary hurricane season forecasts, man's inhumanity to man, and original sin. A great time was had by all, as you can tell. It's a wonder no one brought up Darfur.

The steaks were great, though, and the drinks seemed to slightly improve everyone's spirits from deep despondence to mind-numbing inebriation; not unlike ECT, in fact.

Just the other night another beach friend emailed us:
Emotionally I'm still in the depression stage of the Kubler Ross scale. I'm just waiting for them to start talking about the use of a nuclear blast to stop the leak. {{{sigh}}}
The reactions of local residents seem to be very much like those we cataloged back in 2005, after hurricanes Ivan and Dennis ["Post-Tropical Depression"]. Then, even with most of the storm-ruined houses still visible and some streets lined with heaps of rubbish piled as high as a two-story building, we could write with conviction:
Still, however slowly, recovery is underway. Homes and businesses are beginning to be rebuilt. The community will rebound sooner or later.
There is a difference this time. Most of the people we've interviewed and friends who've email us are not convinced this time that they will see a "rebound." Not in their lifetimes, anyway.

The truly nefarious thing about this oil spill is that it has robbed so many coastal residents of confidence in the future. Just as it seems to have robbed Reginald Dogan of his customary optimism. The only thing Dogan says would impress him is if "the president steps into the Gulf, walks across the water and magically plugs the Gulf oil spill, then that would be something worth seeing."

That's pretty close to the hopeless range of possibilities the women patients we knew thought they saw ahead of them. The despair evident in Dogan's column is just as unrealistic.

The root error he makes is that he is pretending to suppose that President Obama is here to personally plug the leaking BP oil well. That's nonsense, of course. It's the very sort of forlorn tantrum we might have expected from one of our inconsolably despondent patients at the bridge table. Except, it's not really a tantrum; it's a cry for help.

Most of what any president does could be done at least as well -- and often better -- in the Oval Office. Obama came here to the Gulf Coast primarily, we think, to give us a dose of what we need most: the will to carry on.

As we noted in the midst of the terrible hurricane season of 2005, "feelings of hopelessness, rage, and abandonment" are common at a time like this. As a community, we need therapy as much as we need better booms.

In circumstances like that, effective therapy begins "by establishing a supportive therapeutic environment which is positive and reinforcing for the individual." The people of the Gulf Coast need that right now more than ever. And that's one thing a president cannot do as well in the Oval Office.
Educating the [patient] within the first session or two is usually the next step about how depression for many people is caused by faulty cognitions. The numerous types of faulty thinking that we as humans do are discussed (e.g., “all or nothing thinking,” “misattribution of blame,” “overgeneralization,” etc.) and the [patient] is encouraged to begin noting his or her thoughts as they occur throughout the day. This is imperative to further success in treatment, for the individual must understand how common and often these thoughts are occurring during a single day.
Here's hoping President Obama's visit is more uplifting and educational than a game of bridge with the ward attendants. Reggie, we need you back. Get well soon.
minor edit 6-15 am


Anonymous said...

Thank you for discussing this. I recently returned to my home in San Francisco after a month in Pensacola assisting the Emerald Coastkeeper. Of course the whole world is following the news of the oil spill, but it's only on the Gulf that you feel the weight of the emotional impact. To say the least, it was incredibly trying just to make it through the day when we were completely immersed in the the disaster as it unfolded. Frustration blends into anger which grows into outrage and indignation. This of course is exacerbated by the arrogance of BP and the federal government, thinking they can appease Gulf citizens with an expensive smoke screen of useless volunteer training sessions and miles of boom that will be unable to stop the millions of gallons of oil that is dispersed underwater.

When I returned to San Francisco, my friends expected that I could share with them insider information about the oil spill and the response. The truth is, the news is the same everywhere, but the most notable part of my experience on the Gulf Coast was the unrelenting despair. Of course it is an experience I value greatly, and one that I will never forget, but when I returned to the West Coast I felt enormous relief. I have profound admiration for the residents of the Gulf Coast who have pushed through this crisis every day without even a whisper of good news. That is bound to strain even the strongest psyches.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate so much your attention to this matter. As a local, I am devastated! I was born here, raised my children here and never imagined myself anywhere else. I love this place. I am connected. To me...It feels as though a part of who I am is dying and I can only stand by and watch as it happens. It is about more than "white sand beaches". This place somehow has become a part of how I/we identify ourselves. I know I am depressed now. I have now found myself caught in this cycle of grief that only time will heal.....If you are a believer, pray for our communities. If you have a friend or loved one in the affected areas, send a smile their way. People can't always tell you what they are feeling inside. The devastation may simply be too much to express.

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