October 20, 2014  

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Social Work Training to Aid Mental Health Support for Oil Spill Victims

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The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill of 2010 created one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history. (Getty/Moore images)

Faculty and graduate students in The University of Southern Mississippi School of Social Work will aid in the Gulf Coast’s recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by addressing the mental health needs of those still impacted by the April 2010 disaster.

An allocation of more than $100 million in funds from the BP Health Settlement was designated for expanding residents’ access to health care and enhancing the skills of health care providers in the affected area. More than $8.2 million of that is going to Southern Miss for its role in the Mental and Behavioral Health Capacity Building Project (MBHCBP).

The goal of the project is to provide mental and behavioral health in primary health care settings while also training graduate level social work and psychology students to work in those facilities. Southern Miss is part of a consortium of five universities in four states – Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida – affected by the spill that are engaged in the initiative.

“The region is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and the oil spill adds yet another layer of challenges for residents,” said Dr. Tim Rehner, director of the school. “There are mental health challenges that individuals and families face in order to adapt successfully to these stressors.

“It’s my hope that we will help extend the services that are presently being offered in primary healthcare facilities and that we will be able to graduate professionally trained social workers and psychologists prepared to respond to issues related to disasters, trauma, and long term recovery.”

The award spans a five-year time period during which time field units will be set up in existing federally qualified health centers managed by Coastal Family Health Center (CFHC) in the state’s three Gulf Coast counties (Hancock, Harrison and Jackson).

Those units will include licensed clinical social workers with the School of Social Work, who will provide supervision and training related to mental and behavioral health so services can be provided for clients impacted by disasters. At the same time, graduate students in social work and psychology will participate in internships with these units, gaining valuable experience in mental health service to disaster victims.

“With the expertise of our faculty and the contributions our students will make, we can complement the existing primary care efforts of these clinics,” Rehner said. “We look forward to working with Coastal Family Health in creating community-based clinics that can be one-stop shops for both physical and mental health services.”

CFHC CEO Angel Greer said her organization has a long history of partnering with others in the community to create cost effective ways to address the needs of its patients.

“This is one more example of that vision in action,” Greer said. “As residents of south Mississippi, we understand the risk of natural disasters and prepare for those. As community partners and leaders, USM and CFHC are joining for the long haul to ensure that our neighbors, friends, and families have the support they need to face and recover from any disaster.”

Greer is also excited about the chance to build relationships with Southern Miss graduate students as they complete their internships. She believes their experience will enrich their education in a way only “hands on” practice can.

“They’ll learn about the diverse needs in the affected community, and how community health centers utilize resources to meet those needs,” Greer said. “We hope some of these students will eventually become members of our mission-driven staff.”

For more information about the Southern Miss School of Social Work, online visit www.usm.edu/socialwork.