concerns in Flint
Psychologists are among those helping to address
citizens’ fear, sadness and frustration in Flint, Michigan.
By Tori DeAngelis
As manager of disaster mental health for the American Red Cross, Valerie Cole, PhD, has seen her share of hurricanes, tornados and other disasters. But the
contaminated-water debacle in Flint, Michigan, is a tragedy of a
different sort, says the Washington, D.C.-based psychologist.
“With most disasters — even big ones that take a while to
come back from — once they’re over, they’re over, and people
can start recovering,” Cole says. In Flint, though, “people are
experiencing a lot of frustration and sadness and a feeling that
you can’t depend on anyone else.”
Citizens are experiencing extreme parental worry over
children’s long-term health and behavior; ongoing feelings of
angst, anger and mistrust of government; and escalating rates of
distress, both among people with long-standing mental health
issues and those who were healthy before the crisis, says Lauren
Tompkins, PhD, chief clinical officer at Genesee Health System,
the lead agency in Flint working to address mental health needs
“People are mostly expressing worry about what is going
to happen — the fact there is no end in sight — and also
about the many ways [the crisis] impacts their day,” she says.
Because people don’t trust the filtered water and because it isn’t
recommended for children and pregnant women anyway, many
continue to live on bottled water, a daily challenge that involves
lifting and carrying heavy water containers, sometimes without
adequate transportation. Since bathrooms and laundry rooms
lack filtered water entirely, bathing is also a source of anxiety,
with regular reports of skin rashes, welts and thinning hair
among locals. People are also reporting the premature deaths of
pets exposed to contaminated water at the start of the crisis.
“One family had four of their relatively young dogs die
within less than a year,” Tompkins says.
Another ongoing psychological issue is burnout among
temporary aid workers, says Susan Silk, PhD, APA’s Disaster
Resource Network (DRN) coordinator for Michigan. Because
the work is long-term, and because volunteers don’t have
the satisfaction of seeing people’s lives truly getting back on
track, “it’s a situation where supporting our workers is more
important than ever,” she says.
Seeking to address these mental health concerns is a
combined effort of local, state and federal forces. There is
widespread training on psychological first aid, an evidence-based set of tools that includes active listening, practical
assistance such as delivering water to those who can’t travel,
connection with supports and other ways of helping people
cope in a crisis. To deploy these techniques, the U.S. Public
Health Service tapped Red Cross workers to train community
members including professionals like social workers, students
and regular citizens in the techniques. Dozens of classes are
underway so people can take part.
In addition, Genesee Health System, with support from the
Public Health Service, Red Cross, United Way and others, is
overseeing a large number of community-based work groups
that are addressing Flint’s mental health needs through public
communication, crisis outreach, workforce stress management,
mental health needs assessment and more.