Flint Water Crisis Left Long-Term Mental Health Consequences


The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi this summer is a worrying reminder that some American communities are still unable to provide safe water to their residents. After Jackson’s primary water treatment plant failed, around 180,000 people were left with little or no sanitation water. It commemorated the crisis in Flint, Michigan, which brought public awareness in 2015, when residents learned they had been poisoned for months by drinking water containing bacteria, disinfection byproducts and lead.

The crisis is anything but a distant memory in Flint. According to a new poll of nearly 2,000 adult community members published in JAMA network open As of September 20, five years later, residents were still grappling with the ongoing mental health impact of the crisis. After conducting a survey from 2019 to 2020, researchers estimated that in the year prior to the survey, about one in five Flint residents were believed to have had major depression, while one in four had PTSD and one in ten had both conditions. Those who believed they or their families had been harmed by the contaminated water were significantly more likely to be affected. The authors note that lead itself can affect mental health, including mood.

Mostly low-income and people of color, Flint residents were already vulnerable to mental health issues, including from systemic racism, a lack of quality, affordable housing, and widespread poverty. However, the researchers found evidence that the water crisis itself had lasting effects on mental health. For example, 41% of respondents said they felt mental or emotional problems related to their concern about water pollution. According to the study, compared to the general population rate in Michigan, the United States or the world, Flint residents were more than twice as likely to have major depression and twice as likely to have post-deployment PTSD as veterans.

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The way the water crisis unfolded made Flint residents particularly vulnerable to long-term mental health effects, the researchers say. A big problem is that decisions by officials caused the 2014 water crisis when they switched the city to untreated water from the Flint River. Even after health care workers sounded the alarm about high levels of lead in children’s blood, officials misled the public by insisting the water was safe. “Feeling like the community is uncared for or actually abandoned adds an extra layer of stress,” says Aaron Reuben, co-author of the new study and a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University and the Medical University of South Carolina.

A lack of resources can also increase anxiety. Lottie Ferguson, the City of Flint’s Chief Resilience Officer, noted that food insecurity made it difficult for residents to eat healthy foods rich in foods that mitigate the effects of lead toxicity. Ferguson, who worked in Flint during the crisis and whose children were exposed to lead, says she felt compassion for parents who didn’t have the same resources as her family. “I was more upset and hurt for parents who didn’t have access to resources to secure their children’s futures,” she says, adding that she understands why distrust of officials in Flint is still widespread.

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To make matters worse, the water crisis dragged on for a long time. Although the water supply was switched back to the original source in October 2015, lead levels did not fall below the federal limit as of January 2017. This left Flint residents with a lingering sense of insecurity about their health and safety. “It wasn’t like a hurricane that came and went and then built up again,” says Lauren Tompkins, former vice president of clinical operations at Genesee Health System, a Flint-based nonprofit healthcare organization. She coordinated the emergency mental health resources available to residents in response to the crisis. “It took a few years to repair the pipes. So you’re in this worrying state all the time for a long time.”

In many ways, the water crisis is not over yet. For example, researchers have described an increase in hyperactivity and learning delays in children. Residents still don’t know exactly how badly they and their families were affected by the polluted water and whether it caused the health problems they are now suffering from. They also do not know whether new health problems will suddenly appear in the future.

This is similar to what happened after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, says study co-author Dean G. Kilpatrick, a professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina who researches PTSD and traumatic events. Although locals were not exposed to dangerous radiation, fears led to permanent mental health damage. “If something is invisible and tasteless, you can’t really tell if you have it or not,” says Kilpatrick. “Even the perception that you may have been exposed is enough to cause many long-term mental health effects.”

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With the help of outside funding and support, members of the Flint community expanded mental health services in Flint, both during the initial crisis and in the years that followed. However, only 34.8% of respondents said they had been offered mental health services for symptoms related to the crisis, although 79.3% of those who were offered services took advantage of them. The study’s authors argue that their findings suggest Flint still needs a stronger mental health response from local, state, and federal government. There are also important lessons for other cities suffering from water crises, including Jackson – the importance of providing the public with clear, accurate information.

Overall, Reuben says, it’s important to recognize that crises like the one in Flint can have a lasting impact on mental health. In Jackson, “We want the community to know that we are thinking of them, and we will be thinking of their mental health,” he says. “Not just when the taps are empty, but potentially years after that.”

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