Research Shows How Unjust Police Killings Can Damage African Americans’ Mental and Physical Health

Harvard Chan’s David R. Williams, whose research looks at how discrimination affects Black people’s health, appeared on “60 Minutes” in April. (Courtesy of Harvard Chan School)

Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, many African Americans have reported feeling overwhelmed at times by the trauma, anguish, and outrage stirred up by Floyd’s death, as well as other incidents of police violence against Black victims. The disturbing frequency of these events, and the relentless news coverage of them in the last year, has been taking a real emotional toll.

A first-ever study in 2018 found that a police killing of an unarmed African American triggered days of poor mental health for Black people living in that state over the following three months — a significant problem given there are about 1,000 police killings annually on average, with African Americans comprising a disproportionate 25 percent to 30 percent of those. The accumulation of painful days over the course of a year was comparable to the rate experienced by diabetics, according to the study’s author, David R. Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Williams, a leading expert on the social influences of health and a professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Harvard University, spoke with the Gazette about what he’s seen in the past year, the mental and physical tolls discrimination take on Black lives and what individuals can do to help mitigate them.

Q&A with David R. Williams

GAZETTE: This is a new area of scholarly inquiry. What have you found thus far about the causal links that police killings have on Black people’s mental health?

WILLIAMS: What we sought to do was to identify if a police killing of civilians had negative effects not just on the victim’s family, immediate relatives and friends, but on the larger community. We looked at every police shooting in America over a three-year period [between 2013‒2015] and then linked that, in a quasi-experimental design, with data from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] on the mental health of the population in every state. And what we found was that every police shooting of an unarmed Black person was linked to worse mental health for the entire Black population in the state where that shooting had occurred for the next three months.

It wasn’t every police shooting that did that. If the Black person was armed, there was no negative effect on Black mental health. We also didn’t find any effect of police shootings of Blacks, armed or unarmed, on the mental health of whites in those states. And we didn’t find any effect on Black mental health of police shootings of [unarmed] whites. So we found a very specific effect. We think it’s both the perception of it being unfair and the greater sense of vulnerability that it creates.

GAZETTE: Were you surprised at all by those results?

WILLIAMS: It’s a striking finding, and it’s the first time it has been documented in that way. On the other hand, it’s not totally surprising. There’s a body of evidence emerging that suggests these incidents are having a negative impact not just on [victims’] family members, but there’s a broader community grieving; there’s a broader “threat” to the community; there’s a broader increase in personal vulnerability that’s having mental health consequences. … We are still in the beginning of understanding of what is happening.

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SOURCE: The Harvard Gazette

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