Flint’s water crisis has left long-term mental health consequences

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Jhe Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis this summer is a disturbing reminder that some American communities still fail to provide drinking water to their inhabitants. After Jackson’s main water treatment plant failed, approximately 180,000 people were left with little or no sanitary water. It was reminiscent of the crisis in Flint, Michigan that sparked widespread public awareness in 2015, when residents learned they had been poisoned for months by drinking water containing bacteria, pennies -disinfectants and lead.

The crisis is far from a distant memory in Flint. According to a new survey of nearly 2,000 adult community members released in Open JAMA Network September 20the inhabitants were still fighting against the lasting impact on mental health of the crisis, five years later. After conducting a survey from 2019 to 2020, researchers estimated that in the year prior to the survey, about one in five Flint residents likely suffered from major depression, while a quarter suffered from PTSD and that one in 10 suffered from both diseases. Those who believed that they or their families had been harmed by contaminated water were much more likely to be affected. The authors note that lead itself can impact Mental Healthincluding mood.

Flint residents, who are largely low-income and of color, were already vulnerable to mental health issues, including due to systemic racism, a shortage of quality affordable housing and widespread poverty. However, the researchers found evidence that the water crisis itself had a lasting impact on mental health. For example, 41% of respondents said they had experienced mental or emotional problems related to their concerns about water contamination. According to the study, Flint residents were more than twice as likely to have had major depression compared to the rate of the general population in Michigan, the United States, or the world, and were twice as likely to have had major depression. have PTSD than veterans after deployment.

The way the water crisis has unfolded has made Flint residents particularly vulnerable to long-term mental health effects, researchers say. A major problem is that the decisions of civil servants caused the water crisis in 2014, when they changed the city to raw water from the Flint River. Even after healthcare workers sounded the alarm about high blood lead levels in children, officials deceived the public insisting that the water was safe. “The feeling that the community is unsupported, or in fact abandoned, adds an extra layer of stress,” says Aaron Reuben, co-author of the new study and postdoctoral researcher at Duke University. and at South Carolina Medical University.

A lack of resources can also make anxiety worse. Lottie Ferguson, resilience manager for the city of Flint, noted that food insecurity made it more difficult for residents to have a healthy diet 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 resented parents who didn’t have the same resources as her family. “I was more upset and more hurt for the parents who didn’t have access to the resources to secure the future for their children,” she says, adding that she understands why distrust of officials is still common in Flint. .

To further complicate the situation: the water crisis has lasted a long time. Although the water supply was returned to its original source in October 2015, lead levels did not fall below the federal limit until January 2017. This left Flint residents with a lasting sense of uncertainty about their health and safety. “It wasn’t like a hurricane that came and went and then you built back up,” says Lauren Tompkins, former vice president of clinical operations at Genesee Health System, a nonprofit health care organization in Flint. She coordinated the emergency mental health resources made available to residents in response to the crisis. “The pipes took several years to be repaired. So you are constantly in this state, for a long time, of worry.

In many ways, the water crisis is not over yet. For example, researchers have describe increased hyperactivity and learning delays in children. Residents still don’t know for sure how badly they and their families have been affected by the polluted water and whether it has triggered the health issues they are currently suffering from. They also don’t know if new health problems will suddenly appear in the future.

This is similar to what happened after the partial collapse of 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 studies PTSD and traumatic events. Although the inhabitants have not been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, the fear that they will be led to lasting damage to their mental health. “If something is invisible, tasteless, you can’t really tell whether you have it or not,” says Kilpatrick. “Even the perception that you might have been exposed to something, by itself, is enough to cause many long-term mental health effects.”

With the help of outside funding and assistance, members of the Flint community expanded mental health offerings in Flint, both during the initial crisis and 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 offered services had taken advantage of them. The study authors say their findings indicate that Flint still needs a greater mental health response from local, state and federal governments. There are also important lessons for other cities experiencing water crises, including Jackson, such as the importance of providing the public with clear and accurate information.

Overall, Reuben says, it’s critical to recognize that crises like the one that happened in Flint can have a lasting impact on mental health. To Jackson, “We want the community to know that we are thinking of them and that we are going to think about their mental health,” he says. “Not just once the taps are empty, but potentially for years afterwards.”

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