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Five years after water crisis, 1 in 5 Flint, Michigan residents has PTSD: Very high rates of depression and PTSD linked to water contamination

Data from the largest mental health survey of the Flint, Michigan community indicate that one in five adults, or roughly 13,600 people, were estimated to have clinical depression, and one in four, or 15,000 people, were estimated to have PTSD five years after the water crisis began.

“The mental health burden of America’s largest public-works environmental disaster clearly continues for many adults in Flint,” said Aaron Reuben, a postdoctoral scholar at Duke University who led the research, which appears Sept. 20 in JAMA Network Open.

On April 25th, 2014, the city of Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River and failed to properly treat the water supply to prevent lead and other elements from leaching out of the city’s old water pipes. Virtually all Flint residents were consequently exposed to drinking water with unsafe levels of bacteria, disinfection byproducts, and lead, a neurotoxicant.

Flint drinking water was not declared lead-free until January 24, 2017. During the crisis, tens of thousands of children and adults in Flint developed high blood-lead levels, putting them at greater risk for cognitive deficits, mental health problems, and other health problems later in life.

“We know that large-scale natural or human-caused disasters can trigger or exacerbate depression and PTSD,” said Dean Kilpatrick, PhD, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Medical University of South Carolina and senior author of the study. Kilpatrick noted that there was clear evidence of high rates of mental health problems in the Flint community during the first years of the crisis. “What we did not know until now was the extent to which Flint residents continued to have mental health problems at the clinical diagnosis level five years after the crisis began.”

According to Kilpatrick, past year rates of depression and PTSD identified in Flint today are three to five times greater than national estimates among US adults overall, and likely result from a combination of higher base rates of mental health problems in Flint before the crisis as well as a significant exacerbation of problems resulting from the crisis.

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