A new study, published in The Lancet, examines the spillover effects of police killings of unarmed Black Americans. The study was co-led by Jacob Bor, assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health, and Atheendar Venkataramani, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Results of the quasi-experimental study, which analyzed data from over 100,000 Black Americans, suggest a causal link between police killings of unarmed Black Americans and poorer mental health in Black Americans.
“Beyond the immediate consequences for victims and their families, police killings might also affect the mental health of people not directly connected to the killings or to the people involved,” the researchers write. “Racism, like trauma, can be experienced vicariously.”
Black Americans are almost three times as likely to be killed by police as White Americans. That number increases to five times as likely when the person is unarmed. Research has shown that racism and discrimination are associated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes. Additionally, Black men who have negative interactions with police experience more mental health challenges.
Although there is substantial and increasing evidence of the association between structural racism and poorer mental health outcomes in people of color, it has been difficult to demonstrate a causal link between racism and health. Therefore, the authors conducted a population-level, quasi-experimental study to examine the effect of police killings on Black American’s mental health. The researchers collected data from over 100,000 Black Americans via the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a random, nationally representative survey.
They used the Mapping Police Violence database to calculate the number of police killings in the state the respondent was from during the three months before the survey, focusing on killings of unarmed Black Americans. The researchers used the number of days a respondent described their mental health as “not good” in the month prior to the survey as the study outcome measure.
The researchers were able to compare respondents who were exposed to police killings of unarmed Black Americans in their state during the previous three months to respondents who were not exposed to police killings over the last three months. They also explored the impact of police killings on the mental health of Black Americans compared to White Americans. This quasi-experimental design allowed the authors to make causal conclusions about how police killings of other Black Americans can impact Black American’s mental health.
Almost half (49%) of respondents were exposed to a police killing of an unarmed Black American in their state during the three months prior to the survey. On average, respondents were exposed to one police killing of an unarmed Black American in the previous three months, equating to four killings a year.
“Exposure to one or more police killings was associated with a 0.35 day (0.03-0.67; p=0.032) increase in poor mental health days.”
Results show that each additional police killing of an unarmed Black American results in a 0.14-day increase in poor mental health days in Black Americans. Psychological health appears to be worst about two months post-police killing. Police killings of unarmed Black Americans did not affect White American’s mental health, nor did police killings of armed Black Americans have an impact on Black American’s mental health.
The authors summarize their findings:
“Our estimates suggest that police killings of unarmed black Americans have a meaningful population-level impact on the mental health of black Americans. Specifically, our estimates imply that police killings of unarmed black Americans could contribute 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person per year, or 55 million… excess poor mental health days per year among black American adults in the USA.”
Given the findings, the authors support previous calls to “treat police killings as a public health issue” and reform the criminal justice system. They recommend more public health programs that provide mental health support to Black Americans vicariously affected by police killings. This call is especially important given recent research showing mental health counselors lack training in racial trauma.
The researchers point to the effect that these events have on the meaning-making of Black Americans. They suggest that “the meaning ascribed to police killings of unarmed black Americans, in light of the historical and institutional context in which they occur, probably mediates the adverse mental health effects of these events on black Americans.”
Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. C. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: A population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31130-9 (Link)