Coastal Resource and Resiliency Center’s Role Expands
Many can recall April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers and creating the largest marine oil spill in United States history. The devastating event not only affected the flora and fauna within the Gulf ecosystem, but also negatively impacted communities throughout the region.
Dr. J. Steven Picou, a Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the University of South Alabama, has extensively researched disasters, including the social and psychological effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Not surprisingly, his expertise has now been directed toward the Gulf oil spill and its effects on coastal communities by implementing training for building community resiliency. The Coastal Resource and Resiliency Center (CRRC) is one of several projects associated with the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program, focusing on improving public and behavioral health care access in the areas affected by the Gulf spill.
The primary reason for the creation of the Center was because the oil spill, “caused significant ecological and community damage,” said Picou, director of the CRRC. “As acute forms of social pathology, including suicides, became increasingly visible in the summer of 2010, we implemented a peer listener training program across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida,” he added. In the postdisaster period, Dr. Picou trained more than 600 peer listeners, providing them the skills to help rebuild social capital and to contribute to the recovery of their communities This is one of many steps Picou and Dr. Keith Nicholls, Associate Director of CRRC, have taken in order to help stabilize the communities affected by the oil spill. The role of community health workers and volunteer peer health advocates includes building trust and social networks across the region, while also providing referrals and information to residents in need of help. “The peer listener concept is one strategy for building therapeutic social relationships and, in effect, rebuilding trust, reducing self-isolation and providing distressed survivors with important resources for overcoming adversity,” Picou stated.
As one of the major programs housed within the CRRC, the Community Health Workers Training Project (CHWTP) is tasked with training CHWs as part of the overall Gulf Region Health Outreach Program. The primary objective of this effort is to enhance primary and behavioral healthcare capacity and health literacy, especially among disadvantaged and underserved populations. Some of the duties CHWs perform include assisting people in receiving the health care they need, providing information on available resources, and providing social support and informal counseling. As of this time, CRRC has trained 49 community health workers and 26 volunteer peer health advocates.
According to the CRRC website, these individuals demonstrate, “superior people skills, a practical understanding of healthcare obstacles and issues, and the commitment to contribute positively to the health and well-being of their respective communities.” Nicholls says the community health workers are trained in communication skills and are educated in community attributes and dynamics, the personal impacts of disasters and the health resources available throughout the affected areas.
Trained community health workers serve in federally qualified health centers, faith-based organizations, and free clinics. Volunteer peer health advocates work with individuals who exhibit symptoms warranting possible referral to health professionals for physical, behavioral and environmental health services. In addition to the four million dollar grant received through the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program, CRRC was just awarded a 2.3 million dollar grant from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to expand its training activities across the northern Gulf of Mexico. Nicholls further stated, “The expanded program will include a chronic disease training module that helps lay health workers identify and manage the diseases and conditions associated with or aggravated by technological disasters such as oil spills."