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5 years after water crisis, 1 in 4 Flint residents suffered PTSD, study says

(This story has been updated with comments from the director of the Flint Registry.)

FLINT, MI — One in four Flint residents met the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder and one in five suffered clinical depression five years after the onset of the Flint water crisis, according to a new study released Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Researchers from Duke University, Medical University of South Carolina, and Boston University reported their findings on JAMA Network Open, concluding that there is a large, unmet need for mental health services here and that need is unlikely to dissipate without a comprehensive response from local, state and federal government agencies.

The study is based on a survey of 1,970 adults who lived in Flint during the water crisis, which was triggered in April 2014 after the city’s water source was changed to the Flint River. The improperly treated river water was corrosive to lead water transmission pipes and home plumbing, resulting in elevated levels of lead as well as chlorination byproducts and bacteria in city water.

Residents were surveyed from August 2019 through April 2020, the study says, and Duke University reported that rates of depression and PTSD identified in Flint were three to five times greater than national estimates among all adults — likely the result of both higher base rates of mental health problems here as well as a significant increase of problems tied to the water emergency.

The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event with symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

“This crisis, with its rapid onset and long duration, potential for personal and family member exposure to toxic substances, and misinformation from trusted officials, represents a potentially traumatic event capable of precipitating or exacerbating psychiatric disorders, particularly depression and … PTSD, that may have long-term consequences for community mental health,” the study says.

Nearly all — 97.8 percent — of survey respondents said they experienced feelings ranging from concern and sadness to fear and anger in response to water problems in Flint and 41 percent reported mental or emotional problems related to their concerns about water contamination.

The study is not the first time mental health concerns have been acknowledged as a part of the fallout of the water crisis, but researchers said their work represents the largest mental health survey of Flint residents since the crisis occurred.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a public health assessment in Flint to evaluate behavioral and physical health concerns for adults and children as well as their access to behavioral health services.

That report said 66 percent of households reported one or more adult members reported experiencing at least one behavioral health issue “more than usual” and 54 percent of households reported that at least one child experienced at least one behavioral health issue “more than usual.”

Roughly one in five households reported difficulties in accessing behavioral health services in the CDC assessment.

The new study indicates only 34.8 percent of survey respondents said they were ever offered mental health services to assist with water-crisis–related psychiatric symptoms and says nearly 80 percent of those who were offered services utilized them.

A spokeswoman for the Genesee Health System said Wednesday, Sept. 21, that the new study matches the agency’s anecdotal and internal trends.

“These concerns were one of the reasons we took the bold step of asking the community for a mental health millage that gave us flexible funding to address these issues,” Renée Keswick, director of communications and public relations for GHS, said in an email to MLive-The Flint Journal. “Most of the impact of the water crisis had resulted in the need for services that are not Medicaid reimbursable.

“With the passage of that millage, we have begun program development with additional services like the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center to provide crisis and after-hours services. We will continue to work with the community to address these issues, and provide services that are high quality and accessible,” Keswick said.

Nicole Jones, director of the Flint Registry, said that group “is also seeing concerns with adult and child mental health” related to the water crisis.

“In the first five years, the Flint Registry has enrolled over 20,000 individuals and made over 30,000 referrals to health services. Referrals for adult mental health services and child mental health and behavior health services are some of the top needs that we have identified and addressed,” Jones said in an email to The Journal.

“The findings presented … along with the work of the Flint Registry point to the need to support and build capacity for mental health services in our community,” the statement continued. “This study and our work also highlight the importance of long-term follow-up and support for those impacted by the Flint water crisis to mitigate the impact of the trauma.”

If individuals are in need of mental health services, behavioral health urgent care is available from GHS around the clock by calling 810-496-5500. For all other questions, the agency can be reached at 810-257-3705.

Read more at The Flint Journal:

Jury awards $100K to health worker who said Flint blood lead data was falsified

Community service motivated Burton’s first female mayor more than politics

Genesee County on verge of approving work-from-home plan for some employees

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