Coping After Crisis

Five years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, residents show high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

a comparison of a graph

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In late April 2014, the City of Flint, Michigan, switched its reliable and safe water supply to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure without consulting city residents. The city failed to treat the highly corrosive water correctly, and toxic amounts of lead infiltrated the drinking water from the old water pipes. The resulting public health disaster exposed the city’s history of systemic racism and the consequences of environmental injustice on both physical and mental health.

Even though residents voiced concerns about water quality almost immediately after the switch, the city did nothing. The city only returned to a safe water supply after high blood lead levels were found in children in September 2015, a year-and-a-half after the municipal water became toxic. But the crisis was far from over for the people of Flint.

Aaron Reuben and colleagues looked at how long-term effects of the water crisis may have affected depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates in Flint based on survey responses collected throughout 2019. Flint residents who took the survey reported their experiences and mental health symptoms during and after the crisis.

The researchers compared the survey results to depression and PTSD information collected by city, state, national, and global government agencies. DSM-5 criteria were used to estimate major depressive disorder and PTSD rates. As seen in the graphs above, Flint residents presented higher rates of depression and PTSD five years after the crisis than the other populations considered in the past-year and over the lifetime (defined as more than one year) analysis.

Respondents who believed the crisis harmed their family’s health were 123% more likely to have depression and 66% more likely to have PTSD than the other respondents. Almost 75% said they were never offered mental health services in the wake of the crisis.

More funds have been allocated to expand the city’s mental health services to address the mental health care shortage. While many factors outside of the crisis can contribute to depression and PTSD, the study illustrates the potential mental health repercussions when government officials risk community health to save a buck.

Databyte via Aaron Reuben, et. al. Prevalence of Depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Flint, Michigan, 5 Years After the Onset of the Water Crisis. JAMA Network Open, 2022.