Alaskans Feel Loss of `Control'

Mental-health experts cite rise in crisis calls, but volunteerism, new cooperation also evident. EXXON VALDEZ: AFTERMATH

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TOM BODETT, carpenter, essayist, and host of National Public Radio's ``End of the Road'' show, sat at an outdoor concert on a sunny Sunday surveying the dark mood of his hometown. Over this picturesque city of 4,000 nestled against shimmering Kachemak Bay and the snowcapped Kenai Mountains, the Exxon Valdez oil spill has cast a pall, he says.

``You see it in the people you know. People are testy, short-tempered. Their tolerance for things - not just oil things - is down,'' Mr. Bodett says. ``Mostly it's just a mood, sort of a feeling that it's a different world than it was six months ago. This isn't the same Alaska that we had coming into 1989.''

Mental-health statistics from the areas affected by North America's largest oil spill indicate more than a mood. The spill arrived in Homer this summer, after drifting 200 miles from Valdez, Ala.

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At the Valdez Counseling Center, the April, May, and June caseloads totaled 514, more than triple the 168 total from the same three-month period in 1988, says Richard Cook, a counselor. Since the spill, three people have been sent from Valdez to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, while typically just one or two Valdez residents are institutionalized in the Anchorage mental hospital in the same time frame, Mr. Cook says.

``Depression is probably the No. 1 symptom that you could pinpoint,'' Cook says. Much of that, he says, is because of the changes in Valdez, where the population tripled after the spill. ``Parking's terrible, traffic's terrible, people are rude. It's not a community at the moment. It's real chaos.''

In Kodiak, a city of 6,700 on a fishing-dependent island that is home to 15,000 people, crisis calls to the Kodiak Island Mental Health Center jumped 500 to 600 percent because of the spill, says Pam Baglien, the center's director. She expects stress - because of cleanup overwork and uncertainty about future fishing - to continue well into the school year. ``People didn't have summer vacations,'' she says. ``They didn't have a break. Come winter, that's going to take a toll.''

In hip Homer, an artistic and tourism colony, the biggest local issue would be an Oct. 3 ballot referendum proposing Homer be declared a nuclear-free zone - were it not for the spill. Mental-health counseling is encouraged by piles of pamphlets offering tips for coping with the ``stressful effects of disaster.'' Example: ``Keep regular patterns of sleep.''

Brad Williams, director of Homer's Community Mental Health Center, says the largest caseload increases have been at the hospital, police department, and women's service groups.

Among those who sought counseling was John Calhoun, Homer's mayor. After about a month dealing with the spilled oil that drifted into Cook Inlet near Homer, ``I felt real disoriented,'' he says. ``I called into work, and I spent the day sitting at home crying.''

Certainly Exxon's creation of 10,000 cleanup jobs this summer, most at wages of at least $17 an hour, injected some life into the flagging Alaska economy. The statewide unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent in May from 10 percent in May 1988.

The Kenai Peninsula borough, where Homer is located, gained 2,300 more jobs in May than it had a year earlier, cutting unemployment to 10.3 percent from 14.3 percent, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. The peninsula is the site of two Exxon cleanup command posts, in Homer and Seward.

But many Alaskans hauling in big Exxon paychecks feel ashamed to be doing so, says Earl Grollman, a psychiatrist who heads Harvard University's bereavement team. ``The people that I talked to felt like prostitutes,'' Mr. Grollman says. ``On one hand, they needed it, they worked for it, and they were going to take it. On the other hand, they felt like they were selling their souls.''

Some residents of Homer, however, have not succumbed to the general depression. Jim Heinzen, a commercial fisherman, is one of several Homer residents in a volunteer group cleaning a lightly oiled beach near the town.

``It's been a real positive thing for me,'' Mr. Heinzen says. ``After all the divisiveness of all the money that came in, people are learning to cooperate. We're reestablishing our priorities.''

Even as Exxon announced its paid cleanup crews would pull out the middle of next month, other volunteer cleaning crews have been forming, including several cleaning groups in Kodiak.

Grollman, however, who has counseled survivors of disasters elsewhere, says Alaskans seem particularly shaken by the spill.

``I think it's more difficult for the people in Alaska ... because it's a fiercely independent group of people,'' he says. ``This is what Alaska is - it's the last frontier. Now they can't control. Now there are forces controlling them.''

Public Radio's Mr. Bodett, frustrated by what he says is Exxon's uncontrolled power, echoes Grollman. ``We know who's in charge now,'' he says. ``We thought we were in charge, but obviously we're not.''

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