Mental Health Problems Abound in Flint Lead Crisis

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
July 26, 2016

water contamination Flint, MichiganProfound stress, worry, depression and guilt are among the mental health problems afflicting residents of Flint, Mich., in the city’s water contamination crisis, say those involved in helping people cope in extraordinary circumstances.

Also taking a toll on Flint residents, mental health workers say, are uncertainty about their own health and the health of their children, the open-ended nature of the crises and raw anger over the government’s role in both causing lead contamination and trying to remedy it.

Nicole Laurie, an assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services told The New York Times shortly before President Obama’s recent visit to Flint that the first thing she noticed when she arrive in Flint was the level of fear, anxiety and distress.

The United States Public Health Service team of behavioral health specialists began assessing the mental health problems earlier this year by providing “psychological first aid” training for people interested in helping residents cope with the water emergency.

The local mental health agency, Genesee Health System created the Flint Community Resilience Group, whose members are focusing on the long-term psychological consequences of the water crisis and how to address them.

Using a $500,000 emergency grant from the state, the group offers free crisis counseling at churches and the public library and has held two community meetings on stress management. Social workers, social work students and other mental health professionals from around the state are offering counseling on a volunteer basis.

Around 500 Flint residents have been helped since counseling began, a number that most observers deem is short of what is needed in a city with a population of more than 100,000. Flint is located 66 miles northwest of Detroit.

Diane Breckenridge, Genesee Health’s liaison to local hospitals, told The Times that she had seen people come into the hospitals directly related to nervous breakdowns. “Most of it’s been depression or suicidal ideation directly linked to what’s going on with their children. They just feel like they can’t even let their children take a bath,” she added.

She added that she teaches a group of fifth-graders every Wednesday in Flint. “I just get all kinds of questions because they’re terrified.”

Dexter Clarke, a supervisor at Genesee Health, said children are being traumatized because they constantly hear frightening things on television about the lead crisis, including advertisements by personal injury lawyers seeking clients.

Among the challenges facing mental health workers is convincing people to seek psychological help from professionals.

The Rev. Rigel J. Dawson, pastor of the North Central African-American church told The Times that his focus was on persuading religious-minded residents of the majority-black city to seek psychological help if they need it.

“There’s a history in the African-American church of ‘I’m strong enough spiritually to deal with it.’ You see signs of stress and what it’s doing to the community, but we’re conditioned to put on our church face and act like it’s O.K.,” he said.

Danis Russell, the chief executive of Genesee Health Systems, said that even though the potential for stigma have kept many from seeking mental health services in the past, the water crisis might make them more willing. “Now there’s an acceptable reason. People may say: ‘This isn’t my fault. Somebody did this to us and everybody’s getting help, so I should too,’ ”

He added that no one knows what the demand will look like in the future.

The state’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will help more low-income residents get psychological help, but officials at Genesee Health System worry about not having enough professional mental health workers to meet the eventual demand. Government and local officials are working to make another 15,000 children and pregnant women eligible for Medicaid under a temporary emergency program.

Legislation to provide millions of dollars in mental health and other services for Flint are pending in Congress.

Drinking water safety continues to be a hot-button issue nationwide after reports of lead-poisoned children surfaced in Flint. The crisis has resulted in many cities and states testing their water supplies for lead contamination and several have set aside money to cover the cost of testing and remediation. Cities most affected by lead being found in their water supplies include Washington, D.C., Columbia, S.C., Dunham and Greenville, N.C., Jackson, Miss., and Sebring, Ohio.

In Ohio, the state legislature has set aside $12 million for infrastructure repairs and the cost of drinking water testing in schools. Schools built before 1990 could qualify for a grant of up to $15,000 in material costs per building.

The Ohio Water Development Authority also plans to help schools identify outdated water fixtures containing lead.

In children, especially those age 6 or younger, lead in the blood can cause behavior and learning problems, hyperactivity, lower IQ levels, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.

Another new Ohio law requires public water systems to alert residents within two days after lead is found at the tap. The two-day notification is a major switch from current federal rules that give water plants 60 days to notify all residents. The law was enacted and signed into law after residents in Sebring weren’t told for months about lead-tainted water detected last summer.

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