Fatal shootings of African-Americans by police have negatively impacted the mental health of their communities, says a new study that comes amid nationwide outrage over the death of yet another black teen.
The study, published in The Lancet journal on Thursday, examined mental health survey data and a database of police shootings to compare the mental health effects on black adults in the months before and after a police killing.
One set of data came from a national telephone survey of more 950,000 adults between 2013 and 2015. Of those, more than 103,000 were African-American, and 38,993 of those had been “exposed” to one or more police killings in their state in the three months prior to the survey. Exposure was defined as word of mouth, news stories, and/or social media.
“Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” the surveyors asked.
Researchers then compared the number of poor mental health days experienced by respondents with a state-by-state tally of police killings from the Mapping Police Violence database, the brainchild of Black Lives Matter activists Sam Sinyangwe, DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie.
The study results suggest that police killings of unarmed black people could contribute to 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person, per year. That amounts to 55 million additional poor mental health days annually for black adults in the US.
“Our estimates therefore suggest that the population mental health burden from police killings among black Americans is nearly as large as the mental health burden associated with diabetes,” the authors wrote. The “spillover” effect was strongest in the 30-60 days after police killings.
Senior author Alexander Tsai, an associate professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, described police killings of African-Americans as having “corrosive effects” on the mental health of black people in the US.
However, the mental health impact occurred only in cases where black Americans were unarmed when they were killed. The same impact was not present when armed black people were killed by police.
“The fact that the victim was unarmed evokes a lack of justice, a sense of unfairness… I think it wasn’t so surprising to us as it was so striking,” lead author Dr. Atheendar S. Venkataramani told PBS NewsHour.
Meanwhile, the researchers found no negative impact of police shootings among white people. The study didn’t measure the impact of police violence against Latinos or Native Americans, though Venkataramani said he hopes other studies will look into those effects.
The study’s authors have recommended that programs be implemented to “decrease the frequency of police killings and mitigate adverse mental health effects within communities when such killings do occur.”
The research was released just two days after black teenager Antwon Rose was shot and killed by police in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The incident was filmed by a resident at a nearby home, and has since gone viral, sparking protests. One witness said the officer did not try to use non-lethal means before opening fire.
“He just shot that boy for running,” she told AP.
The shooting prompted scores of young black activists to flock to the Pittsburgh police station on Wednesday, to voice their outrage over what they believe was an abuse of power by the officer. They held signs that read “End Police Violence Now” and shouted “Say his name.” A crowd of demonstrators then shut down a street and a small group staged a sit-in protest, disrupting traffic.
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