Police Shootings And Mental Health

Jun 22, 2018
Originally published on June 22, 2018 11:35 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The police killings of unarmed black Americans impact the mental health of people far beyond those who knew the victim directly. A new study is delving into this, and Karen Grigsby Bates for a Code Switch team has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose appeared to be running away when he was killed by police this week. Police say two weapons were found on the floor of the car he was riding in. But Rose was reportedly unarmed when he was shot three times. It was the latest shooting to make headlines for something that has become all too common.

JACOB BOR: Black Americans are five times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police while unarmed.

BATES: Jacob Bor is a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health and was part of a team from BU, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. They examined data from a phone survey of more than 103,000 black adults over a three-year period and data on police killings. The results were published this week in the British medical journal The Lancet. Bor said they wondered how the police violence was affecting black mental health.

BOR: In addition to the direct effects of these events on the victims and their families, we wanted to know whether there might be spillover effects on other people in the general population.

BATES: So the researchers asked people how they would describe their own mental health shortly after these police shootings occur. What they found was in days after the shootings, respondents reported an increase in days of poor mental health. Alexander Tsai is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and one Bor's teammates on this study. He says they've known for a while that when white people are racist towards black people directly, it hurts that black person's mental health.

ALEXANDER TSAI: But the field hasn't really been able to gain a purchased on documenting how structural racism affects mental health. That's what we measure.

BATES: And, both men say, there's a history of state-sponsored racial violence, and it matters. Slavery and Jim Crow are in the past. But, Alexander Tsai says, the effects are still felt today.

TSAI: Even though Native American Indians got shunted to the reservations years and years and years ago, the effects of sort of that state-sponsored violence are still reverberating even today. Historical trauma matters a great deal.

BATES: Jacob Bor agrees and says it's time to speak honestly about it.

BOR: We often talk about things like this country needs to have a conversation about race. Well, no, this country needs to have a conversation about racism.

BATES: That might begin by acknowledging how far systemic racism reaches.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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