Police Violence Leads to High Anxiety for Black Americans

By Cara Murez
HealthDay reporter

THURSDAY, May 6, 2021 (HealthDay News) – A new survey confirms what many young black Americans already know: They are vulnerable to anxiety disorders, especially when in contact with the police or in anticipation of contact with the police.

“I think it’s important, given what’s going on in society,” said survey author Robert Motley, director of the Race and Opportunity Lab at Washington University in St. Louis.

“And I think that helps us understand better, because a lot of this research on police violence and mental health outcomes has only really started to bloom since the Mike Brown incident,” said Motley, referring to the shooting of a black teenager by a white. police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

“We still don’t fully know its impact, first of all, because we don’t really know the actual rates of exposure, not even the number of people killed by police, but how many people are simply exposed to a non-recourse. fatal to force by police, “he said.

The survey found that police contact anxiety was moderately high among the 300 survey participants, all of whom attended community college or university in St. Louis. Being male, unemployed, and witnessing more violence in the community were significantly associated with greater anxiety about contacting the police.


The researchers used a scale to rate the severity of anxiety symptoms experienced by a participant over the past 30 days during or when anticipating contact with the police in light of past experiences, including the direct experience of the use of force by the police, witnessing the use of force or seeing a police video. use of force in the media.

The study also found that on average, survey participants experienced police use of force almost twice each, witnessed police use of force. police in person more than seven times and had seen video of the police use of force more than 34 times.

Participants had also witnessed community violence – acts of violence and others not involving the police – on average more than 10 times in their lifetime.

Motley said his research interest was always in exposure to community violence among young black adults, but that he was further influenced by the violence that occurred shortly after his arrival in St. Louis, when Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot dead by a police officer in 2014.


Brown is one of many familiar names to those who study police violence or read the news, including George Floyd who was killed in Minnesota last year.

The study was presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s virtual annual meeting last weekend. Results presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

When someone doesn’t get help with their anxiety, it can lead to behaviors like substance abuse, as well as emotional shutdown and not committing to school. It can have a negative impact on family and relationships, Motley noted.

Anxiety can activate the body’s stress response system, making it difficult to concentrate, prioritize tasks and make a person preoccupied with a sense of danger around them, said Dr. Jessica Isom, psychiatrist at Codman Square Health Center in Boston. Chronic stress can lead to other health problems, from high blood pressure to poor quality sleep, she added.

“The chronic stress felt at all levels as a black person in this country, essentially, all of this contributes to the same thing, which is a detrimental effect on the body and the mind,” said Isom, who did not do so. not part of the study.


There can be triggers for contact with the police anxiety in everyday life, as obvious as seeing a police car while driving and worrying about whether the officers are paying attention to you and will cause you to see a police car. security guard at the mall or inside. a bank, she said.

Providers such as doctors and teachers can work to reduce race-related stress by ensuring that they do not contribute to it in their work. For the police in particular, Isom suggests a trauma-informed approach.

“The only way to make sure you approach people in a human way is the same as we do in healthcare. We have to approach people with a trauma-informed approach, which means you would see the interaction through the lens of maybe that person hasn’t had a positive prior experience and might be reacting to a catastrophic idea of ​​what means this interaction, ”Isom said.


“For this reason, you would be particularly careful to 1. check how they experience the interaction; 2. provide information about what you are doing and why you are doing it; and 3. keep yourself in check. Your response to increased stress as the person in power is not going to help the person who is subject to your power, ”she said.


Motley would now like to study a larger sample of individuals and begin to develop national estimates of exposure to violence.

These findings could help physicians be more aware when they see someone from a racial minority in their practices, including emergency rooms, that they should assess a person’s exposure to symptoms of violence and abuse. anxiety, he said.

“And I hope we can provide them with the proper care they need,” Motley said.

More information

The Washington Post maintains a database of shootings of police officers on duty since 2015.

SOURCES: Robert Motley, PhD, director of the Races and Opportunities Lab, University of Washington, St. Louis, Mo .; Jessica Isom, MD, MPH, psychiatrist, Codman Square Health Center, Boston, and clinical instructor, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, May 1-3, 2021

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