There will be neurological effects for the children of Flint, Mich. The lead in their drinking water entered their bloodstreams and their developing brains and nervous systems, where it could impair their growth and intelligence.
But there will be other effects, too.
"Children very quickly absorb how they’re seen in the world," says Marie Rudden, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College. She points to the famous studies conducted by Mamie and Kenneth Clark in the 1940s, later cited by the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which black children prized dolls that more closely resembled white children than themselves. Even at a young age, it appeared as if they had internalized how society valued them.
In Flint, the children will grow up knowing that the government itself failed them, that people who were supposed to protect them did not intervene, that their health was jeopardized for financial savings, that cries from their parents were dismissed. They may know, eventually, that their own mayor believes this was allowed to happen because their community is poor and predominantly black.
That is a lot to take in for a child of any age. And in Flint we are talking about children who were already living with many disadvantages — high crime, poor-quality housing, the stress of poverty — before the water even began running out of the tap murky and foul-smelling.
"Children, as they grow up, if they’re not seen as valuable, they pick that up very quickly," Rudden says. "And here, forget about the subtle messages that kids find in preschool or elementary school. You find out that, in fact, you were poisoned by your city water system. That’s an almost unfathomable assault on one’s sense of identity. How could that be?
"What does a child make of the fact that, in some way, he or she was disregarded in a fundamental way? Even more than picking up that you’re not quite on the top of the pecking order, that you’re not blond, that’s an enormous piece of information to wrap your head around as you get older."
These children, in addition to suffering from a public-health catastrophe, were betrayed. And that brings psychological costs, too.
"That’s a particularly bad kind of trauma," says Gilbert Kliman, the founder and medical director of the Children’s Psychological Health Center in San Francisco. "There’s a lot of evidence that betrayal is worse than, let’s say, a natural catastrophe like an earthquake. I think it’s because, ultimately, the victims realize that there were people involved who could have done better for them or who had real malevolence."
As betrayals go, this one was perpetrated by institutions of power more than individual people. And while government and race have been implicated in disasters before — consider Hurricane Katrina — this one is particularly personal to children, Rudden says. They were its biggest victims. The result, she fears, could be confusion, depression, anger and despair as the children age. And, she wonders, how they will become active citizens when they could not have faith in government as children.
In Flint, reminders of the betrayal are embedded in everyday life, in baths that are taken with bottled water, or visits to the grownups who give medical tests. Reminders flow out of the faucet.
Rudden is optimistic, though, that because this was a community tragedy and not a private one, the community can come together and create a sense of collective response. As that happens, Kliman says, children will need some "immunizing doses of truth." In his own research on childhood trauma, dating to the John F. Kennedy assassination, he has found that children respond with less anxiety and behavioral problems when adults help them understand what happened.
Central aspects of Flint's betrayal are not new for black children, says Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. "This has been the condition of African American life since our ancestors were first brought here to be slaves," she says. "That was done by the government."
People for centuries have developed ways of living within societies and with institutions that don't value them, she says. They create counternarratives: "No, we’re worthwhile people — they’re the crazy ones."
This is why children walking into newly desegregated schools in an earlier era, past soldiers and protesters, maintained their dignity, Fullilove says, to the surprise of psychiatrists at the time.
"It’s because they’re living inside a collective counternarrative," Fullilove says. "You can’t really understand any of it without understanding that people who are oppressed over time develop ways to manage oppression. Those exist, and black people in Flint know about this, and they do it. And they are doing it as we speak."
They are now forcefully saying -- as the mayor has -- that the problem lies not with the people in Flint, but wirh the callousness of the system around them.