Flint’s Toxic Water Poisoned Mental Health, Too

Since the water crisis began in 2014, Flint has been dealing with an invisible crisis: alarmingly high rates of PTSD and depression. Credit: Maskot/Getty Images

by Joseph Williams

This story is part of “Flint’s Still Fighting,” Word In Black’s series about the decade-long water crisis, and the struggles and triumphs still transforming the majority-Black city.

It’s been a decade since Joyce Ellis McNeal learned the water coming from the taps in her Flint, Michigan, home was, in her words, “poisoned.” The anger and trauma in her voice is still very much present.   

In April 2014, not long after news broke that her city’s water was tainted by lead and bacteria, McNeal, a K-12 special-needs educator, noticed her adult son, Joseph Pounds, Jr., didn’t look well. By 2015, Pounds came down with a crippling illness that caused him to gradually waste away before her eyes. Flesh began falling from him in grisly chunks. 

Shuttled from one Flint doctor and hospital to another, prescribed one medication after another, Pounds’ body continued to break down, consumed by something seemingly no one could diagnose, much less fight effectively. Puzzled clinicians and specialists asked Pounds’ mother: Had he been to Africa? What was his HIV-AIDS status? How did he get so sick? 

But mother and son had already identified a prime suspect after he was hospitalized; “He kept screaming, ‘It was the water!’” McNeal says.

Pounds’ physical illness would soon become his mother’s psychological pain.    

The Other, Invisible Crisis 

The phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” brings to mind individuals often linked to the diagnosis: a war veteran who’s seen combat, a violent crime victim, perhaps someone who survived childhood abuse or a plane crash.

Rarely do we connect the psychological disorder with turning on the faucet in the kitchen sink. 

Yet that’s what Flint residents have experienced since April 25, 2014, when the city registered its first complaints that the drinking water looked, smelled, and tasted foul. Research has shown city residents suffer from extraordinarily high rates of PTSD and depression as a result of the crisis, even though the water infrastructure is in the midst of a massive, system-wide upgrade. 

They still don’t know if it’s safe to drink the water. 

Long-Lasting Mental Health Impacts

The collective stress from the uncertainty, researchers say, stems from a decade of quietly relentless stress related to the water crisis: from government misinformation and falsehoods about the extent of the problem; concern about how Flint’s children have been affected by consuming lead-tainted water; and a range of illnesses, from rashes and hair loss, to young children with behavior issues and developmental delays. 

Ten years of news coverage portraying Flint, a majority-Black city, as poor, dysfunctional and in perpetual crisis adds to the psychological distress, expats say. 

The PTSD and related depression in Flint manifests itself in a range of problems, including absenteeism at work and school, difficulty in personal and on-the-job relationships and higher-than-average rates of substance abuse, including alcoholism and illicit drug use. 

That’s the finding of a study conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina, a teaching and research institution, based on data collected in Flint from 2019-2020. Nearly 2,000 adults living in Flint throughout the water crisis were asked about their experiences, their psychological symptoms five years after the crisis and whether they had access to or had used mental health services between August 2019 and April 2020. 

The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were higher than we thought they would be.


Dean Kilpatrick, a psychiatry professor and PTSD researcher at MUSC, says that although the data was collected five years ago, most psychological improvement occurs earlier than five years after the event. Therefore, he says, it’s likely the data he and his team analyzed for their 2022 report hasn’t changed much; Flint likely is still struggling with its mental health.

“The fact that it was five years afterwards, and a substantial proportion of people were still having problems, indicated that there were some long lasting mental health impacts to us,” Kilpatrick says. “The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were higher than we thought they would be. We thought that they would be elevated, but we didn’t realize they would be as high as they were.”

Even though the water crisis in Flint is being addressed, it qualifies as an ongoing PTSD event, according to the MUSC report, particularly in light of “its rapid onset and long duration, potential for personal and family member exposure to toxic substances, and misinformation from trusted officials.” 

Exacerbating the problem: Flint suffers from a shortage of mental health workers. While PTSD is often seen as an individual problem, Kirkpatrick says in Flint’s case it’s a big deal when a fifth of the city’s majority-Black population is struggling. 

“Populations are made up of people,” says Kirkpatrick. “So if you’ve got a large number of people, or a substantial number of people within that population (who are suffering), then the effect is going to be magnified across communities.”

“So when a stressor like that affects a large number of people, it’s going to mean that a higher proportion of your population is going to be impaired to some level or another,” Kirkpatrick says. “And they’ll have difficulty with schoolwork, they’ll have difficulty with jobs, they’ll have difficulty just maneuvering life, difficulty maybe getting along with other people.”

Three Grades Behind

McNeal, a member of Flint’s school board and a special-needs classroom educator, says she’s seen the problems first-hand. 

Recently, “I started teaching in schools. And I started looking at the behavior of Black boys,” she says. “They were not growing. They seemed to be short for their age. And the average kid in Flint — If you’re in the fourth grade, you’re reading on a kindergarten level. They are three grades behind.”

The crisis did not occur within a vacuum.


Aaron Reuben, who worked with Kilpatrick on the report, says Flint’s high poverty rate is an aggravating factor in how the city copes with the twin mental-health and water crises. 

“Those rates are far too high, and should be a signal that more needs to be done to treat these conditions now and improve the underlying factors that contribute to them,” says Reuben, a Duke University postdoctoral researcher specializing in neuropsychology and environmental health. That includes, he says, tackling “poverty, high rates of exposure to potentially traumatic events, and low levels of social support and cohesion.”

While Flint residents deserve to be celebrated for their resiliency, “the crisis did not occur within a vacuum, but rather within a context of years of disinvestment and other challenges,” Reuben says. 

And without concentrated investment and mental health support to address the PTSD, things won’t improve and could get worse, Reuben says. 

“We consider the water crisis to be a potentially traumatic event,” he says. “This is particularly true for individuals who were concerned that they or their family members had been exposed to lead-contaminated water” and who haven’t received answers. 

A Mother’s Trauma

People like Joyce Ellis McNeal, who still doesn’t know exactly what happened to her son. After weeks of fruitless treatment, his organs failing one by one, Joseph Pounds Jr. died last year on Oct. 18 in his mother’s home. He was just 41. 

There’s people at the top who benefit from killing off a race of people.


While she never received an official diagnosis, McNeal believes her son fell ill “by him drinking that contaminated water,” she says. “Remember — we were drinking e coli (bacteria.) The water wasn’t being cleaned — period.” 

“I’m traumatized,” McNeal says, and not just for the loss of her son. She is angry, frustrated and sad over “what I have seen is happening to the people of color and a poor community.” 

Although she lives in a more affluent section of Flint, she still doesn’t believe the water is safe and won’t drink it. She worries about the children she sees in schools, acting out and falling further behind. And she still doesn’t believe the government is taking the problem seriously. 

“There’s people at the top who benefit from killing off a race of people, crippling a race of people in the city of Flint, and nobody is crying wolf,” she says. “A community of 85,000 was poisoned.”