Police Brutality Cases Harm Black Americans’ Mental Health

By Amy Norton
HealthDay reporter

TUESDAY, April 20, 2021 (HealthDay News) – As America awaits a verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial, new research reveals such high-profile murders of blacks by police could have adverse mental health consequences across the country. country.

Researchers found that, on average, black Americans reported an increase in “bad mental health days” during the weeks when more than one fatal racial incident made headlines.

These incidents often included hate crimes, but most involved police killings of black individuals or court decisions not to charge or convict an implicated officer.

In contrast, the study found no change in mental health ratings of white Americans during those weeks.

The results may seem intuitive, said lead researcher David Stuart Curtis, an assistant professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

“On the one hand, it sounds like a ‘yes, of course’ discovery,” he said.

However, Curtis added, it’s hard to get good data on how people do mentally before and after events like these.


And, he pointed out, most of the study participants actually did not report any days of poor mental health during the investigation period.

Yet, on average, black Americans showed an increase that matched the racial incidents that gained national attention.

“We need to be aware that these incidents can have effects that spill over to the public,” Curtis said.

There are several potential reasons, according to Curtis. For some people, events in the news can be a reminder of racial trauma they or their families have experienced, he said. For others, they can trigger “community grief and mourning.”

Particularly in cases where the legal system takes no action against the agents involved, feelings of injustice can take a toll on mental health, according to Curtis.

The results – published on April 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – come as the nation awaits a verdict on Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop on trial for murder in the death of George Floyd.

The study period spanned from 2012 to 2017 – before Floyd’s murder in May 2020, which sparked widespread U.S. protests. The period included the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, respectively – as well as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.


Curtis’ team assessed the mental health ratings of Americans using data from a federal health survey that surveys more than 400,000 American adults each year.

One question asked people to estimate the number of days in the past month that their mental health was “not good”.

On average, according to the study, black Americans reported 0.26 days of additional poor mental health during the weeks when at least two racial incidents were in the spotlight nationwide.

People may have various responses to “the indirect experience of racism,” said Ryan DeLapp, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

It can range from a feeling of numbness to anxiety to anger, according to DeLapp, who was not involved in the new research.

The study did not assess clinical mental health diagnoses. But there is growing recognition, DeLapp said, that exposure to racism can cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some people.


Conversations about racism and racial trauma can be uncomfortable, including for mental health professionals, DeLapp said. But there are standard racial stress questionnaires available, and he suggests therapists give them to new patients as part of their standard “admission” assessment.

Then they can let patients know that a conversation can take place, if they want to. “In this way, [patients] are in control, ”DeLapp said.

Outside of therapy, people can protect themselves from racial stress, and that’s exactly what many face with chronic stressors, DeLapp noted. People find ways to cope and be resilient, often relying on the community.

DeLapp suggested that when it comes to social media – and exposure to news and images of racial violence – people are giving themselves enough time offline. It can give them a chance to process their feelings, he said, and also “connect with other things that reaffirm your worth as a person”.

But at the end of the day, DeLapp said, the job has to fall on the systems in which racism is embedded.

“The responsibility should not lie with individuals,” he said.

More information


Mental Health America has more on racial trauma.

SOURCES: David Stuart Curtis, PhD, assistant professor, family and consumer studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; Ryan CT DeLapp, PhD, assistant professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online, April 19, 2021

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