Can Water be a Crisis Too?

Posted by Leslie Bolt on March 17, 2016

In case you haven’t heard, Flint, Michigan is having a water crisis. This emergency first began in April, 2014, when due to a budget crisis Flint’s water supply was changed from its original source; a combination of Lake Huron and the Detroit River, to the Flint River where the standard treatments for corrosion control were not applied (British Broadcasting Corporation World Service [BBC], 2015). In essence, this oversight resulted in lead contamination in Flint’s water, thereby creating serious public health concerns. What this has meant for the community of Flint is that its 100,000 residents have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead, and because of this, may experience a variety of serious health problems (Ridley, 2015). The Flint water crisis not only made national news, but as of January, 2016, had been declared a state of emergency. (The White House, 2016).

It may not be easy to think of Flint’s current situation as a crisis in accordance with how we view crises today. For instance, there does not appear to be any immediate danger, buildings and homes have not been destroyed, and no one has been shot. The community of Flint, to a passerby, may look identical to many other economically struggling communities in this country. Nevertheless, the ongoing endangerment of an entire community’s health via a basic human right has all the psychological properties of a true crisis.

A Disruptive Life Event – A crisis can also be described as an event that is disruptive to an individual’s life or as an obstacle to their achievement of an important life goal. Additionally, during a crisis, traditional coping skills are often rendered ineffective. It is not a stretch to believe that finding out one day the water you and your family have been using as a basic tenant of life, including drinking, cooking and cleaning is toxic, is a disruptive event. In the prolonged chaos of determining how to make it each day without water, it is likely the community of Flint has not been able to rely on their customary coping skills.

Loss of Sense of Safety – Most of us take for granted our sense of safety. Each day, we make the assumption that the world around us will be generally safe. The earth will not spin off its axis, the bank will still have our money, cars will stop at designated stop signs, and our leaders will make decisions that keep us safe. When a critical incident takes place, most often it is the loss of our sense of safety that is the most notable. This is no different for the community in Flint who now has to think twice before they engage in an unremarkable task such putting in a load of laundry or taking a shower.

Change in World View – Although we know that most people who experience a crisis eventually return to what is referred to as a new normal, we also know that this new normal often includes a change in their world view. Most commonly, a crisis shakes either our confidence in ourselves or in the constructs around us. For the community of Flint, it may be a long time until there is restored faith in those who have pledged to keep them safe. Although a change in worldview appears to be a normal part of life, it is often more detrimental when it takes the form of mistrust in others.

Support – Finally, one of the most important elements of a crisis is the ability for those involved to come together in support of one another in order to expedite the healing process. Human beings are resilient as are the communities they live in. And like any crisis, the water emergency in Flint provides the opportunity for individuals to join together to not only support others and provide hope in this time of distress; but to promote change and move forward with their new normal. It is often through this support of one another that individuals build strength in the aftermath of any crisis. It is this newfound strength and courage that is our hope for the community of Flint, Michigan.

References: British Broadcasting Corporation World Service. (2015, December 23). Why lead poisoning is feared in Flint [Video file]. Retrieved from www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03ctmmy

Ridley, G. (2015). Governor Snyder calls Flint water issue ’greatest challenge’ during interview. Retrieved from www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2015/12/gov_snyder_calls_flint_water_i.html#incart_story_package

The White House. (2016). www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/16/president-obama-signs-michigan-emergency-declaration

About the Author: Leslie Bolt is a Limited Licensed Psychologist with a master’s degree in Counseling Education, Counseling Psychology from Western Michigan University. She is currently in the 3rd year of her Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program through Fielding Graduate University. Leslie has provided psychological services including therapy and psychological evaluations for Children’s Protective Services for the past 10 years. In addition, she is also a telephonic clinician for the Productivity Assurance Call Center at R3 Continuum.