The past few weeks have brought on an avalanche of police brutality cases in the news. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks were a few of the black Americans who have died this year at the hands of white officers. Their deaths have shocked and outraged much of the nation, reigniting support for the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for justice reform.
These violent events (as shocking as they are) are disturbingly common. Mapping Police Violence, a research and data collection group focused on collecting information about police killings nationwide, estimates that black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, and are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed.
“We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens,” said Sandra L. Shullman, Ph.D, president of the American Psychological Association, in a recent statement. In fact, one study published in The Lancet found that police killings of unarmed black Americans can have an impact on black citizens, lasting for at least three months after the incident. The paper’s findings make clear that George Floyd’s death, and others like it, have clear implications on the mental health of black Americans, further emphasizing the need for police reform and more widespread access to mental health services.
Police Killings & Mental Health
In The Lancet’s report, researchers surveyed almost 40,000 black Americans who had experienced a police killing in their state within the last three months. Researchers found that each additional police killing of an unarmed black American resulted in an increase in poor mental health days for black Americans in that state – the most significant effects occurring one to two months after the killing. They found no effects of these killings on the mental health of white Americans, no effect of police killings of unarmed white Americans on the mental health of white Americans, and no effects of police killings of armed black Americans on the mental health of Black Americans.
Jacob Bor, Sc.D, an assistant professor in global health at Boston University in Boston and one of the principal authors of this study, explains that the specific nature of these results is crucial to understanding their meaning. “The specificity of the effects suggests that these police killings of unarmed black Americans wage violence against mental health of other black Americans because of the specific meaning ascribed to these events and the long history of state violence used to subjugate black Americans,” he says.
In other words, there is cultural significance to police killings of unarmed black Americans, connected to our country’s long history of systemic racism and segregation. “These incidents embody structural racism so clearly because they illustrate not just that blacks are at higher risk for victimization by police than Whites; but that these disparities are enforced by the power of the state and with consent of the governed,” Bor says. Police killings of unarmed black Americans rarely result in charges being filed against the officer; data from Mapping Police Violence indicates that 99% of officers involved in killings between 2013 and 2019 were never charged.
The advent of social media has pushed these deadly police confrontations to the forefront of our political dialogue, but they have been going on since our country’s origin, adding to the pain felt by black Americans as these killings continue to happen in their communities. Recent research by Desmond Ang, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, notes a clear impact of police killings on the emotional health and educational success of high schoolers in the affected neighborhood. Ang estimated that each police killing in his sample caused three students of color to drop out of high school.
2020 Census Bureau statistics reveal that symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder spiked among black Americans in the week following George Floyd’s death. Add this to the disproportionate health risks from COVID-19 faced by people of color (also often due to structural racism), and you have a layered network of mental health crises faced by the black community right now.
Racism as a Public Health Issue
Police brutality is more than just a political issue, says Rachel Hardeman, Ph.D, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis who researches the health effects of racism. “Police violence is a public health issue,” she asserts. “Even in the absence of physical violence, several studies have shown that [police] stops perceived as unfair, discriminatory, or intrusive are associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.”
Hardeman’s previous research has shown that people who had negative encounters with the police (even if they perceived those encounters as necessary) were less likely to trust the medical establishment. She fears how this will play out during the coronavirus pandemic. “The same folks who have been terrorized by police after Mr. Floyd’s murder are going to be less likely to seek help and care when they contract COVID symptoms,” Hardeman notes. “And those that do may end up in hospitals and health care systems that are inherently racist,” like a medical system with deep roots in economic inequality, perceived biologic differences between races, and unconscious bias from healthcare providers.
In a new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hardeman and her co-authors emphasize the ongoing health emergencies faced by black Americans: heightened risk of maternal mortality, higher rates of asthma and cancer due to pollution exposure, and an increased risk of death from COVID-19. They argue that “mastering the health effects of structural racism” should become a primary goal of the U.S. healthcare system.
One way to do this, the paper states, is by changing the existing healthcare business model to make care widely accessible to all patients, regardless of socioeconomic status. Another method: work actively to recruit and hire more non-white healthcare workers and providers. Hardeman notes that these changes could also be applied to mental health services, such as psychiatrists and social workers, to help black communities heal.
The effects of police brutality are much bigger than the politicized coverage we see in the news. These tragedies affect the health of Americans in the long-term, not just in the few days and weeks following a widely reported encounter. “The best way to reduce this mental health burden is to reduce police killings of black Americans,” Bor says. He notes that The Lancet’s findings reveal two major takeaways:
1. Black Americans are not alone in feeling anxious. “The stress and anxiety that many black Americans are feeling right now are normal responses to a stressor that has been shown to adversely affect mental health,” Bor says. If you’re feeling overwhelmed lately and afraid to admit it, know that you’re not the only one experiencing this. “Poor mental health is something that is often experienced privately and is often stigmatized,” he explains. “Our findings illustrate that this is really a population-level phenomenon.”
2. White Americans do not experience these events the same way. “The stress and anxiety that many black Americans are feeling right now is not shared by white Americans,” Bor notes. “Therefore, it is incumbent on white Americans to have some humility, show some empathy, and listen to black Americans about how they experience police violence and structural racism more generally.” Now is the time to listen, learn, and actively fight for your black friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.