Police killings of unarmed black Americans harm the mental health of black adults nationwide, researchers report.
“Our study demonstrates for the first time that police killings of unarmed black Americans can have corrosive effects on mental health in the black American community,” said co-lead author Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani. He’s a health economist and general internist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Each year, more than 300 black Americans are killed by police, and at least one-quarter of them are unarmed, the study authors said. Black people are nearly three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, and nearly five times more likely to be killed while unarmed, the researchers added.
It’s been unclear how police killings of unarmed black Americans affects black adults in the general population.
In this study, the researchers analyzed data gathered between 2013 and 2015 from nearly 104,000 black adults who took part in a national health survey. Nearly half of them lived in states where at least one police killing of an unarmed black American had occurred in the 90 days leading up to the survey.
Each additional police killing of an unarmed black person in the 90 days before the survey was associated with about 0.14 additional days of poor mental health among participants who lived in the same state. The strongest effects occurred 30 to 60 days after the police killing, the findings showed.
On average, black Americans are exposed to four police killings in their state of residence each year, according to the report.
Based on a population of 33 million black American adults, the researchers estimated that police killings of unarmed black people could contribute 55 million excess poor mental health days per year among black adults.
That suggests that among black Americans, the mental health harm caused by police killings of unarmed black people is nearly as large as mental health struggles associated with diabetes, according to the study published June 21 in The Lancet.
“While the field has known for quite some time that personal experiences of racism can impact health, establishing a link between structural racism — and events that lead to vicarious experiences of racism — and health has proved to be more difficult,” Venkataramani said in a journal news release.
Study co-lead author Jacob Bor said, “The specificity of our findings is striking.”
“Any occasion in which police resort to deadly force is a tragedy, but when police use deadly force against an unarmed black American, the tragedy carries with it the weight of historical injustices and current disparities in the use of state violence against black Americans,” Bor said.
“Many have interpreted these events as a signal that our society does not value black and white lives equally,” he added. “Our findings show these events also harm the mental health of black Americans.”
Bor is a population health scientist at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more on black Americans’ mental health.