When disaster strikes, social circles are crucial lifelines

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After a disaster, maintaining close relationships with friends and family is a critical part of recovery. Those relationships can help keep people safe in the moment and even promote better mental health long after the initial disaster, according to new research into the Flint, Michigan water crisis that began in 2014.

Sure, that may seem like common sense. But paying attention to how people come together when things go horribly wrong is one way to better help communities in future times of crisis. And it’s not just maintaining a social circle that matters — who’s in it and how close you are to them made a difference in Flint, according to a study recently published in the journal International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

It’s not just maintaining a social circle that matters – who’s in it and how close you are to them made a difference

To recap a long, furious story, in 2014, Michigan state cost-cutting measures polluted Flint’s public water system with lead and bacteria. Afterward, residents reported elevated blood lead levels, skin rashes, hair loss, symptoms of depression and anxiety, fertility rates dropped, and pregnant people exposed to the contaminated water gave birth to babies with lower birth weights than those in other cities. The catastrophe disproportionately affected the city’s black residents, who make up just over half of the city’s population.

When authorities fail a community, or even endanger it, as in Flint, it’s not surprising that people step forward to be there for each other. However, the new research shows that black women in particular had an outsized influence. Women in the survey generally had more “trustees” with whom to discuss the water crisis than men. Both men and women generally had more women as confidants, but black participants surveyed had 31 percent more female confidants in their network than white participants.

There is more evidence from the study that women may have played a key role in preventing even worse health outcomes. Women were more than twice as likely as men to have blood tests, an important step in treating or even preventing health complications from the contaminated water. People with more women in their network were 40 percent more likely to get that blood lead screening and 33 percent less likely to get a rash.

Women may have played a key role in preventing even worse health outcomes

Many types of disasters – storms, heat waves and droughts – often disproportionately harm women. The disaster may exacerbate existing inequalities, so they have more challenges at once. But experiences of systematic marginalization (be it because of gender, race, income, or something else) can lead people to rely more on community-building during difficult times. You can rely on your social circle to get news and information, such as how to access health resources. Collectively, you could push for accountability — and black women like Sasha Avona Bell in Flint have been at the forefront of environmental justice movements.

And of course, relationships can be a source of comfort and emotional support. In Flint, having more “close ties” in your network — measured by how often “confidants” stayed in touch — was also linked to less severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The Flint study was based on a survey of 331 residents in 2019.

Lessons learned in Flint that should inform disaster relief efforts elsewhere, the paper’s authors note: Invest in those community connections. Governments should work with community members to get reliable information and resources where they are most needed, they write. It’s a strategy that some cities have adopted, for example, to prevent illness and death during heat waves. And it could serve disaster responders well, as they prevent misinformation about the chemical spill from East Palestine, Ohio, train derailments.

“Community leaders know better than anyone what their community needs and how to access resources,” said Jenna Shelton, lead author of the research paper and doctoral student at Cornell University in a press release. “Community contexts and connections are important.”

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