With mental health and justice for all

Jasmine Hall

Jasmine Hall, SM ’19, wants to know what drives—and what damages—mental and neurological health. Her hometown’s water crisis lends urgency to her work.

May 21, 2019 – Jasmine Hall won’t ever forget the exact date that the water crisis began in her hometown of Flint, Michigan—April 25, 2014. That’s when, in a cost-cutting move, a state-appointed official decided to switch the city’s water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.

Soon after the switch, residents began to complain that the water coming from their taps was cloudy and foul-smelling. In August, after E. coli and coliform bacteria were detected in Flint’s water, citizens were advised to boil their water.

In the fall, as the Flint water crisis continued to unfold, Hall was on a college semester abroad program in Singapore. On weekends, she’d been taking trips to other countries in Southeast Asia, where, in what struck her as a sad irony, she’d been warned to stay away from the local drinking water.

In February 2015, water at the home of one Flint resident was found to have lead levels that were seven times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable limit. Old lead water pipes were corroding and lead was leaching into the water. In September, a study showed that blood-lead levels in children—those most vulnerable to brain damage caused by lead poisoning—were on the rise. Flint finally switched back to a Detroit water supply in October 2015.

Distress at what happened in her hometown sparked Hall’s interest in the field of public health and led her to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, from which she’ll graduate in May 2019 with a master of science in neuropsychiatric epidemiology with concentrations in public health leadership and population mental health. She’s interested in conducting research on how a community trauma like the water crisis impacts mental health—especially when the trauma occurs during childhood—and what can be done to foster both individual and community resilience in the face of such trauma.

Finding what resonated

The middle child of seven in a single-parent family that struggled with both food and housing insecurity, Hall says she fell in love with school at an early age. After grade school she attended an International Baccalaureate school, part of the Flint Community Schools. GEARUP, a college readiness program that she took in high school, along with academic scholarships, helped pave her way to Central Michigan University.

Hall (standing, second from right) and her family

Initially Hall, encouraged by family and mentors, considered a premedical path in biomedical sciences. But after taking an introductory psychology class during her second semester, she declared a major in neuroscience, intrigued with the idea of studying brains and behavior. She spent one summer doing research with rodents in a neuroscience lab, only to realize that she didn’t like that type of lab work. “I was still interested in brains, but wanted to work with people,” she said.

Returning from Singapore, Hall continued to study neuroscience but, outside the classroom, turned her attention to the community. On campus, she helped organize a bottled water drive for Flint, and helped distribute water in Flint churches, nursing homes, and apartment complexes. She also worked part-time as a caregiver in Isabella County, one of the poorest counties in Michigan, with developmentally disabled adults, assisting with things like nutrition, hygiene, and administering medication.

In a summer course, she learned about the importance of healthy behaviors such as physical activity, sleep, and not smoking. The course opened her eyes to the field of public health.

Hall began to realize that many of the problems she had seen while she was growing up in Flint—neighborhood and domestic violence, sexual assault, abuse, and neglect; a glut of liquor stores and convenience stores but a lack of fresh, healthy food; and few parks and green spaces—were public health issues. “The field resonated with me,” she said.

Stepping up to the plate

Hall planned on applying to Harvard Chan School, but first joined AmeriCorps VISTA. She volunteered in the Boston Public Schools Office of School-Community Partnerships, where she helped strengthen partnerships between the public schools and nearby colleges, nonprofits, and government agencies.

Being in Boston gave Hall the chance to check out Harvard Chan School. She asked lots of people about Harvard—friends, work colleagues, even people she met during part-time work as an Uber and Lyft driver. During one visit to the School, she was introduced to students Erica Reaves, DrPH ’19, and Corrina Wainwright, MPH ’18, both Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Fellows and co-presidents of the Black Student Health Organization (BSHO), who invited Hall to attend the annual Health Equity Leadership (HEAL) conference. Hall found them “incredibly professional and clearly brilliant but also equally interested in making the world a better place.” They would go on to become great friends.

Hall said her time at the School has been challenging but rewarding. When a fellow student mentioned that Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, was looking for a research assistant to help with a systematic review of how contaminants in drinking water can cause neuropsychiatric disorders, Hall was intrigued because of what had happened in Flint. She followed up with Koenen and got the position. The two worked well together, and Koenen become her adviser.

“She really took leadership of the project and stepped up to the plate,” said Koenen. “Her work, her organization, her drive, and her intelligence—combined with her passion for social justice, especially related to the community she comes from—all those things make her unique.”

Outside the classroom, Hall followed in the footsteps of Reaves and Wainwright. Like her friends, she was chosen as an EDI Fellow and went on to help organize the HEAL conference. She also served as president of the BSHO, helping plan a variety of events on campus, such as “Hairapy” discussions that highlighted the politics of black hair as well as the health dangers of chemicals in hair products marketed to black consumers.

Hall (top row, fourth from right) with other student planners of “Hairapy” discussions

The pull of home

In the future, Hall would like to conduct research that explores the sociodemographic, genetic, and environmental influences that can affect mental and neurological health.

Hall would like to know what leads to good mental health in the first place. “We’re never going to have a mentally healthy country if we only put out fires,” she says. “What are the characteristics of people with the best mental health? Who is flourishing? And how do we find an equitable way to promote mental health and well-being for others?”

She hopes that her research will contribute to the promotion of healthy child neurodevelopment and well-being for the Flint community and will also serve as a model of resilience in communities facing similar adversities.

Her immediate plan is to return to her hometown. It pains her that, even today, five years after the water crisis seeped onto the public stage, people still don’t trust their taps. “Flint is still very much in crisis because it is about more than the water,” she said. “It is about the trauma that comes with being poisoned and unheard for 18 months, and an absence of justice.”

Thousands of Flint homes have had their old lead pipes replaced and officials say that lead levels are now within federal guidelines. But there are still many pipes left to replace. Said Hall, “You don’t need to know neuroscience to know that there is no safe level of lead for anyone’s child and that that should be reflected in federal drinking water policy and in infrastructure maintenance throughout the country. I would still not recommend drinking the water in Flint until all pipes have been replaced.”

She said that when she’s home, people talk about the water. “It smells bad,” she said. “In the beginning, it smelled like sewage. Now it smells like it has too many chemicals. When you shower, your skin feels bad. People have problems like dry or patchy skin. People I know in Flint shower quickly, then rinse off with bottled water.” Shaking her head, she said, “You shouldn’t have to do that in 2019 in America.”

She added, “When you think of Flint you think of General Motors, sit-down strikes, economic hardship, and an unfortunate water crisis. I’d like people to think of this, too: resilience.”

Karen Feldscher

Feature photo: Sarah Sholes

Additional photos courtesy Jasmine Hall