BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — It’s a crisis unfolding during a year and a half of pandemic-related challenges and normal day-to-day stressors.
“People are hurting; people are scared,” said Dr. Bernice Patterson. “People are in need of tangible supports.”
Patterson is a clinic supervisor at the Center for Better Health in Benton Harbor. Established in 2020, it offers health services and aims to address racial disparities within Michigan.
According to Patterson, Benton Harbor’s water issues go beyond the physical problems associate with possibly ingesting lead.
“Think about the mental and emotional ramifications,” said Patterson. “What does it mean to have that anxiety of, one, will this problem get taken care of? But also, when will it actually be safe? When they tell us it will be safe, will we actually believe that it’s safe?”
In October the state recommended residents in Benton Harbor only use bottled water. Patterson says the move disrupted people’s routines and creates feelings of fear and uncertainty.
“If I was already concerned about how I was going to keep my lights on, now I have to go buy water separately in order to eat, to drink, to bathe, that is a terrifying thing,” said Patterson.
In order to manage the emotional impacts, Patterson says it’s okay for people to experience a wide-rage of emotions during this time. She recommends people seek help when it’s needed.
“Why would we not go to the solution if we know it’s exactly what we’re looking for?” asked Patterson.
Patterson adds racial disparities in the mental health system add to Benton Harbor’s challenges.
Research shows cultural stigmas and systemic racism make it less likely for BIPOC groups to have access to and seek treatment. When treatment is available, it’s more likely to be poor quality or end early.
Patterson says the community cannot allow Benton Harbor to fall into the cycle as they navigate the water crisis.
“When you come into therapy, you’re entering into this relationship where this person is saying, ‘I want to hold the hard stuff. I want to help you heal. I’m not going to fix it for you, but I’m going to walk as we find the route towards your healing,’” said Patterson.
For local mental health resources in Benton Harbor, click here.