In a new study, researchers say the experiences of residents of Flint, Michigan show that environmental disasters such as the water crisis can have long-term consequences for mental health.
Flint residents reported changes in the color, smell and taste of the water soon after the city turned to the Flint River as a water source in April 2014. Following outrageous pushbacks by residents and reports of children with mysterious diseases, tests by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and scientists at Virginia Tech have detected dangerous levels of lead in the water.
For the new study, published in JAMA Network Open on Tuesday, nearly 2,000 adults who lived in Flint during the crisis were asked about their experiences, their psychological symptoms five years after the crisis, and whether they had accessed or used mental health services. between August 2019 and April 2020. Most of the answers were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Researchers found that 1 in 5 Flint residents met the criteria for presumed major depression, 1 in 4 for presumed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more than 1 in 10 for both disorders.
“Our results from the study conducted with Flint residents five years after the water crisis indicate that Flint residents report extremely high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which are higher than the rates found in veterans after deployment and to prevalence rates in the United States and around the world, “Angela Moreland-Johnson, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, told CNN in an e -mail.
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 their or their family’s health was moderately or severely affected by the water crisis were 123% more likely than their peers to have depression, 66% more likely to have PTSD, and the 106% more likely to have concomitant depression and PTSD, ”the study said.
According to the results, men were 28 percent less likely than women to meet the criteria for depression, and black residents were offered more mental health services than white residents.
“The Flint community may require extended mental health services to meet ongoing psychiatric needs,” the researchers wrote in the study. “National disaster preparedness and response programs should consider psychiatric outcomes.”
The new study did not look at 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 results suggest that people involved in crises like Flint “may experience increased post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.”
The finding is particularly relevant for those who experienced a potentially traumatic event prior to an environmental disaster, as “these previous experiences may put them at greater risk for mental health problems, including PTSD and depression.”
The researchers said communication with residents is key.
“Importantly, we found that people who suffered the most damage from the Flint crisis and those with low confidence in the information provided by authorities on water safety were significantly more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes for half a decade. after the crisis, “study author Salma Abdalla, a researcher at Boston University School of Public Health, told CNN in an email.
Eight years after the water crisis started in Flint, even with new pipes and a different water source, some of the townspeople recently told CNN they still don’t trust water.
“I’ll never drink water again,” said Audra Bell, whose family buys about 10 cases of bottled water a week for cooking, brushing their teeth and making coffee and for them and their dogs to drink.
Their neighbor LeeAnne Walters says she does the same.
“There was no justice in Flint. There has been no rebuilding of trust with the government because they have done nothing to do so. So the rumors go unheard and people have severe PTSD when it comes to water. I don’t know if there will ever be justice with regards to Flint and the damage that has been done to people, ”she told CNN.
Bell said the crisis was tough for the families and choosing to stay in Flint wasn’t an easy decision.
His advice to Jackson residents: “Do the best you can and keep your family safe.”
The water returned to Jackson after a historic flood destroyed the water treatment plant where the pumps had already failed. But problems for residents may persist.
Abdalla said the Flint research “highlights the importance of early action following environmental disasters such as the current Jackson MS water crisis.”
“It shows the importance of joining efforts to repair the water supply system with clear communication from officials to restore confidence in the safety of the system. Efforts should also include mental health appeals to those in need, ”Abdalla said.
CNN reached out to the City of Jackson to find out what options residents have for mental health support, but was not answered immediately. 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 treatment for substance abuse.
In a statement to CNN, study author Aaron Reuben, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the new research “indicates that public works environmental disasters have a long tail, with psychological damage. which can continue for many years if left untreated. ” . ”
“Put simply, clean water is a requirement for health, well-being, productivity and dignity – and we are failing our citizens in providing for this basic need. We believe that Flint residents who experienced the water crisis were remarkably resilient, yet there is still a great unmet need for mental health services to address the psychological impacts of the event, which are reflected in very high rates of depression and PTSD across the Flint community, “Reuben said.
“The lesson for communities like Jackson, MS, is not to overlook the psychological damage and not to assume that, just because community members are resilient, they would not benefit from services to address the psychological scars of a long-term water crisis.” .