Blog: Psychological Damage to the Children of Flint Michigan

photo credit: Danny Miller / AP



By the Task Force on Class and Income Inequality

“If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead,” said Dr. Hanna-Attisha of Flint, Michigan.  Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, was   instrumental in exposing the threat to the children of Flint of lead poisoning -- children who were put in harm’s way by people entrusted to protect them.  Imagine, if you will, the psychological impact on children of knowing that their city and state governments deliberately allowed the exposure to lead in their drinking water to continue.

The eminent pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott observed that a child must have confidence in the reliability of the caretaker to feel safe and to make use of the relationship to develop and grow.  When a child grows up knowing that he or she has been purposefully neglected, there is permanent psychological damage.

Given, as the nation has learned, that the children of Flint were exposed to toxic levels of lead, consider the following:

  • We know that lead is a neurotoxic substance with a well-documented impact on brain functioning and development.
  • We know that lead is the most common preventable poisoning of childhood.
  • We know that the single most important step is to remove children from the sources of lead.
  • We know that social development and self-esteem are adversely affected when caregiving of various kinds are compromised.

Early detection and treatment is critical because of the irreversible damage to the developing brain and nervous system.  Lead is especially harmful in utero and to young children because of rapid absorption into the developing system. Consequences may include delayed milestones in motor and language areas, aggressive and impulsive behaviors, hyperactivity, poor comprehension, and even violent behaviors. Children who are impulsive or at risk for self-harm and harm to others struggle not only with learning, but with refining their social/emotional skills. In short, the effects of lead consumption on child development are devastating.

Forty percent of the population of Flint lives below the poverty line and the majority of residents are African-American. Already living in oppressive circumstances, the children of Flint will grow up knowing that racism and poverty made them vulnerable to gross neglect by their government.

In contrast to the state and city’s response, President Obama’s declaration of a federal emergency in Flint reintroduces the possibility of government as a reliable caregiver, and is one step toward repair of the environmental rupture.

Thus, the Flint water crisis is a social, psychological, and physiological disaster.  Racism, poverty and lead exposure all negatively affect the developing child’s capacity to thrive by impacting their ability to count on their environment, and ultimately, the developing “self” to be “good enough.”  A social environment that fuels perceptions of inequality and powerlessness based on racial discrimination and socio-economic status sets the stage for psychological suffering and lifelong damage in the form of self-devaluation, poor health, and mistrust of government and community leaders.  Recognizing this gross breach of social responsibility is the first step in addressing the situation in Flint.

Karen Melikian, Ph.D. is a social worker and psychoanalyst in Brookline Massachusetts. She is on the staff of the McLean/Franciscan Child and Adolescent Programs in Boston and has a private practice working with adults and children.