Flint residents report high rates of depression, PTSD after water crisis


Flint residents reported changes in the color, smell and taste of their water shortly after the city switched to the Flint River as its water source in April 2014. Residents were outraged after reports of children suffering from mysterious illnesses and back tests by the US Environmental Protection Agency. and Virginia Tech scientists detected dangerous levels of lead in the water.
For the new study, published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, nearly 2,000 adults living in Flint during the crisis were asked about their experiences, psychological symptoms five years after the crisis, and whether they accessed or used mental health services. August 2019 and April 2020. Most of the responses were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Researchers found that 1 in 5 Flint residents met criteria for suspected major depression, 1 in 4 for suspected post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more than 1 in 10 for both disorders.

“Findings from our study of Flint residents five years after the water crisis indicate that Flint residents report very high levels of PTSD and depression, higher than post-deployment veterans and US and global prevalence rates,” Angela Moreland. Johnson, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina Crime Victim Research and Treatment Center, told CNN in an email.

More than half of the people surveyed were women and more than half of all respondents identified their race as black or African American.

“Individuals who believed that the water crisis moderately or greatly affected their or their family’s health were 123% more likely than their peers to have depression, 66% more likely to have PTSD, and 106% more likely to have both depression and PTSD,” the study says.

According to survey results, men were 28% less likely than women to meet criteria for depression and Black residents were offered more mental health services than White residents.

“The Flint community needs to expand mental health services to meet continued psychiatric need,” the researchers wrote in the study. “National disaster preparedness and response programs should consider psychiatric outcomes.”

Lessons from Flint

The new study did not examine the mental health of residents in other communities, such as Jackson, Mississippi, which recently experienced its own water crisis. But Moreland-Johnson said the study’s findings suggest that people involved in crises like Flint “may experience increased PTSD and depression.”

The finding is particularly important for those who may have experienced a traumatic event prior to an environmental disaster, “because these prior experiences may increase the risk of mental health concerns including PTSD and depression.”

For Jackson and Flint, the water may have turned, but the trust is gone

Researchers say communication with residents is key.

“Importantly, people who were most affected by the Flint crisis and who had low confidence in information provided by authorities about water safety were significantly more likely to experience adverse mental health outcomes half a decade after the crisis,” the study’s authors said. Boston University School of Public Health researcher Salma Abdalla told CNN in an email.

Eight years after Flint’s water crisis began — even with new pipes and a different water source — some residents of the city recently told CNN they still don’t trust the water.

“I will never drink water again,” said Audra Bell, whose family buys about 10 bottles of water a week for cooking, brushing teeth, making coffee and drinking for themselves and their dogs.

Their neighbor LeeAnne Walters says she does the same.

“There has been no justice in Flint. There has been no rebuilding of trust in the government because they haven’t done anything about it. So voices aren’t being heard and people have severe PTSD when it comes to water. I don’t know if there will ever be justice in Flint and do it to the people harm to him,” he told CNN.

Bell said the crisis has been hard on families, and choosing to stay in Flint was not an easy decision.

His advice to Jackson residents: “Do the best you can and keep your family safe.”

The ‘long tail’ of public works environmental disasters

The water is back on in Jackson, Mississippi, after historic flooding washed out a water treatment plant whose pumps were already failing. But the residents’ problems may persist.
The EPA is investigating the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, as residents remain under a boil water advisory.  Here's what it would take to finish

Abdalla said the research in Flint “highlights the importance of early action after environmental disasters such as the current Jackson MS water crisis.”

“Efforts to repair the water supply system show the importance of combining it with clear communication from officials to restore confidence in the safety of the system. The effort must also include mental health resources for those in need,” Abdalla said.

CNN reached out to the city of Jackson about what options residents have for mental health support, but did not immediately respond. In a statement, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health said community mental health centers can provide therapy, peer support and intensive outpatient programs for people in need of psychiatric care and substance abuse treatment.

In a statement to CNN, study author Aaron Reuben, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the new study “shows that environmental disasters in the public sector have a long tail, with psychological damage that can last for years if left untreated.”

“Simply put, clean water is a requirement for health, well-being, productivity and dignity, and we are failing our citizens to provide this basic need. We believe that the residents of Flint who experienced the water crisis have been incredibly resilient – and yet healthy There is a huge and unmet need for mental health services to address the psychological impacts of the incident, which are reflected in the extremely high rates of depression diagnosis and PTSD in the Flint community,” Reuben said.

“The lesson for communities like Jackson, MS is not to ignore psychological injury, and not to accept that because community members are resilient, they may not be able to use services to deal with the long-term psychological scars of the water crisis.”

CNN’s Sara Sidner and Meridith Edwards contributed to this report.