A growing mental health crisis in Flint

Health care workers and community leaders said they’ve seen increased anxiety in all ages – kids through senior citizens – because of the water crisis.

BY ELISHA ANDERSON
DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS

FLINT, Mich. – People living in Flint are experiencing mental health issues caused by the ongoing water crisis, including stress, anxiety and fear over what the future holds as they continue to rely on bottled water and filters more than two years after problems first surfaced with the drinking water.

“I don’t know how it’s impacted my health. I’m very emotional just because of my concern for other people. The bottom line is it’s wrong. This is not the way we should have to live,” Angie Thornton-George, of Flint, said on Thursday, Aug. 4 at her home on Flint’s south side. (PHOTOS BY RYAN GARZA/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS)
“I don’t know how it’s impacted my health. I’m very emotional just because of my concern for other people. The bottom line is it’s wrong. This is not the way we should have to live,” Angie Thornton-George, of Flint, said on Thursday, Aug. 4 at her home on Flint’s south side.
(PHOTOS BY RYAN GARZA/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS)

A widespread concern for residents throughout the lead-poisoned city is not knowing how they, or their children and grandchildren, may be impacted because of exposure to the contaminated water.

“You try to keep going like everything’s OK,” Angie Thornton-George said of living with the water crisis that still has no known end date. “But … it’s not OK.”

Kids, adults worried
Thornton-George, like others in town, wonders what effect the water will have on her down the road.

“It’s not so much that you’re like just walking around in fear, but it’s always in the back of your mind – what will happen to me in later years that may be a result of the drinking of this water?” said Thornton-George, 48.

Health care workers and community leaders said they’ve seen increased anxiety in all ages – kids through senior citizens – because of the situation. They point out there are more resources to help families and if people take advantage of them, their children are much more likely to have positive outcomes.

Government distrust
Meanwhile, many residents in the city of 98,000 are living the same way they’ve been living for months: picking up cases of free bottled water from distribution centers for daily use, stacking them up at their homes and questioning how much longer they have to live this way.

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Distrust of government officials remains rampant. Many have filters on their faucets but don’t use them or don’t believe it when they’re told the filters make water safe from lead when properly used, pointing out they once were told their water was safe when it wasn’t.

Some don’t even bathe in the water despite assurances from government officials that it’s safe to do so. Instead, heating bottled water or showering at homes outside the city remain part of their daily routine.

Thornton-George said members of St. Mark Missionary Baptist, the Flint church where she works, are scared. She said they look at their children and wonder whether they’ll be OK.

‘Hard and stressful’
Lead poisoning, experts say, can cause learning disabilities, speech and language problems and an increased risk for behavioral issues. Parents wonder whether, and how, their children will be impacted.

“It isn’t like if you’ve been exposed to lead in three weeks ABC and D is going to happen,” said Kathi Horton, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which has seven funds related to the water crisis. “It takes a while to manifest itself. Its impact can be long-term and so parents are living with the anxiety … of what is going to happen.”

Precious Turner, a 25-year-old mother of four, sat outside her Flint home as she watched her kids play last month. For months, she has relied on bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth — even bathing her children because she said she doesn’t want her kids sitting in the tap water.

Adding to the strain of getting bottled water in the city where 40 percent of people live in poverty, Turner doesn’t have transportation. Family or neighbors bring bottled water to her or she’ll walk to pick it up, she said.

“It’s hard and stressful,” she said of living with the water crisis.

Speech issues
Turner, whose family drank the lead-contaminated water through 2015, worries about what could happen to her children, ranging from ages 2 to 5, and points out speech issues she noticed with her 4-year-old. She said she plans to take her daughter to see a doctor.

She said she can’t understand many of the things her daughter says and wonders whether the water is to blame. Residents throughout the city have similar concerns.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped expose the lead problem in Flint and is director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, said families want to know whether the lead-contaminated water caused issues they are seeing.

“Many people are attributing everything to the water, and maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t,” she said.

“Part of environment health disasters is it’s very difficult to prove causation.”

‘A trauma’
Hanna-Attisha said if she diagnoses a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a speech delay, she can’t say if the lead caused it.

“Maybe the kid was always supposed to have this problem. Maybe it was something else,” she said.

“We don’t know.”

Meanwhile, she said, every day health professionals see families facing stress, anxiety and trauma because of the water crisis. Parents feel guilt, wonder whether they poisoned their child and question what is going to happen next, Hanna-Attisha said.

She said there are lots of referrals for mental health resources and it’s become a recognized part of the crisis.

“Think of it like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she said. “This is a trauma.”

Fear of unknown
People first noticed problems with the water’s taste, smell and look after the city switched its supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River while under control of a state-appointed emergency manager in April 2014.

Corrosion-control chemicals weren’t added to the water treatment process, which caused lead to leach from pipes. The water source was switched back in October but by that point, the water infrastructure had been damaged, so concerns over lead contamination remain.

Part of the anxiety and depression stems from not knowing when the crisis will end and some of it is fear of the unknown, said Danis Russell, CEO of Genesee Health System, whose organization helps with treatment in the community.

Questions run through people’s mind, he said, contributing to the anxiety: Did I drink enough of the water? How much lead did their water have in it? Will it do something to me? Will it do something to my kids? Should I have been doing more to protect my kids?

“A lot of this isn’t like traditional mental health treatment,” Russell said.

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