Water crisis turned mental health crisis: new research on mental health in Flint, MI

How much do environmental disasters impact our long-term well-being? New research published in JAMA Network Open last Tuesday suggests that 5 years after the onset of the Flint water crisis, residents of Flint are still under a heavy psychological burden, and experience depression and PTSD related to the crisis. This data comes as the public gains awareness of Jackson, Mississippi’s ongoing contaminated water crisis.

When trust disappears, mental health plummets

The Flint water crisis is well-known and infamous. After the city chose to switch water sources in 2014, residents complained of dirty, smelly water coming through their taps and making them sick. City officials denied anything was wrong until Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha — also the winner of the 2021 Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility in Healthcare — collected data and found that the blood lead levels of her pediatric patients had doubled. Her team blew the whistle at a public press conference and forced the city to start working on solutions. The recovery has been bumpy, and as of March 2022 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was still recommending Flint residents only consume filtered water.

The water crisis began quickly and has lasted a long time, so it’s no surprise that the residents would feel the mental toll it takes to navigate their situation day-in and day-out. In this most recent longitudinal study, researchers successfully recruited 1,951 Flint residents to complete their survey five years after the onset of the water crisis. They found that 1 in 5 residents met criteria for depression, 1 in 4 for presumptive PTSD, and 1 in 10 for comorbid depression and PTSD. Sociodemographic factors were significantly associated with meeting these criteria, suggesting that the water crisis exacerbated an already-brewing mental health crisis. Unsurprisingly, researchers also connected a lack of confidence in public health information and officials to higher risk for depression, PTSD, and comorbidity.

Inequities played their role in the Flint water crisis. Like climate disasters, when infrastructure collapses in majority Black, working-class areas, recovery is slow. In 2017, a government-appointed civil rights commission affirmed what many Flint residents already knew – that systemic racism combined with implicit bias had contributed to the city’s crisis.

Flint – not even the first, definitely not the last

As this study was being conducted and released, we’ve had plenty more water crises. Right now, Jackson, Mississippi is gaining a ton of press for their contaminated water crisis caused by historic flooding back in August. In California, both schoolchildren and incarcerated individuals may be exposed to contaminated water. In June, the EPA issued guidance to all of the 2.7 million residents of Chicago to avoid their drinking water. This past Wednesday, The Guardian reported 1 in 20 tap water tests in Chicago found lead. Before Flint even happened, there was a 2004 water crisis in Washington, DC

Some of these were due to cost-savings schemes or hard-to-update infrastructure, others were due to natural disasters. What’s clear is that we do not have as secure a hold on clean, drinkable water as we need to have. The EPA has been pushing for water infrastructure improvements as well as for voluntary, regular lead testing, but these efforts take years of concentrated efforts. While no area is immune, these crises tend to pop up and persist in communities with less resources and display our significant equity issues in terms of infrastructure and support. Unless we address these inequities, unless we pour our resources into preserving the life-supporting systems like our water pipes and infrastructure, we’re going to continue to see these crises pop up in the coming years. And as this most recent study shows, the impact of failing to do so can last for years.