Oil spill stress therapy for Louisiana fishermen

By Robyn Bresnahan
BBC News, Chalmette, Louisiana

Image caption,
Shrimp fishing has been restricted in Louisiana because of the spill

The despair in Roy Vanderhoff's eyes says it all. He is a commercial fisherman in Louisiana and his business has been shut down because of the BP oil spill.

"What's hurting me is we're uncertain about our future," he says. "It's like a death in the family and I don't know which way to go now. I'm scared."

Roy's wife, Ladonna, sits with him and begins to cry.

"Fishing is his life, without it he doesn't know anything else," she says.

"He's depressed. He's angry at times. He's not the same. It's hard to see him this way."

Roy and Ladonna have come to the St Bernard Project, a charity in the small town of Chalmette, Louisiana. The organisation offers free counselling to fishing families who have been affected by the oil spill.

The project was set up by Zack Rosenburg and his partner Liz McCartney nearly five years ago.

After seeing TV pictures of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, they left their jobs in Washington DC and moved to Louisiana.

"We originally started the project to help people rebuild their homes after Katrina," says Liz.

"But, once we started working on homes, we noticed something: people were alive, but they weren't living.

"They were missing this richness in their life. And so we decided, if we were going to rebuild people's homes, we also have to make sure we're rebuilding their lives."

The idea of creating a mental wellness centre was born.

Just over a year ago, the St Bernard Project began by offering therapy to families still trying to cope with the devastation of the hurricane.

"But then the oil spill happened," says Liz. "Now we're seeing lots of families trying to cope with that."

Opening up

Mostly it is the wives of fishermen who come seeking help. On this occasion there is a focus group of women and children at the clinic talking about the impact the oil spill is having on their family lives.

Yvonne Landry is also married to a fisherman. She says her husband is depressed, but would never speak to a psychologist.

"I'd never get him to talk to anybody - no way," she says.

"I don't think you'd get many of the fishermen to come and talk. The wives - maybe, but the husbands - I doubt very much.

"If they did, it would be in secret. They wouldn't want anybody else to know."

It is for that reason that Liz wants to expand the project's efforts and take counselling into remote fishing communities.

"Our goal is to open up a centre out where they are and to hire men and women to be peer counsellors and go out into the community," she says.

"We want to help people that are struggling realise they are not alone, and to give people a sense of normalcy and dignity, to make sure they are self-sufficient and contributing members of their community once again."

Roy says opening up his heart to people at the St Bernard Project has helped.

"I've never been much of a talker, but at home, I see the way I'm acting.

"I don't know what to do with myself. But talking to different people, it just helps me."

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