This week, our nation’s psyche was rocked yet again with news — and video — of how Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old black American teenager, was fatally shot in the back by police while fleeing a traffic stop.
His tragic death, and the responses now reverberating throughout the country, casts a deeply disturbing shadow over our research results, reported this week in the Lancet, which shed light on this grim fact: Police killings of unarmed black Americans lead to poorer mental health among black Americans across the country.
This mental health fallout occurs with regularity, given that police officers kill approximately 300 black Americans each year, one-fifth of whom are unarmed. Every time this happens, family members and friends of the victims have their lives torn asunder in an instant.
But what about those who aren’t directly connected to the victims?
Indirect exposure to violent events — such as the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — can cause emotional distress among people not directly affected. This phenomenon, known as vicarious trauma, is well-known to therapists, first responders, social service workers, journalists, and other professionals whose jobs require empathically interacting with trauma survivors or handling uncensored media.
It would not require a leap in logic to imagine that indirect exposure to police killings of unarmed black Americans might have similar distressing impacts on black Americans not directly affected by it.
We explored a possible connection using data from the U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and the Mapping Police Violence project. By merging these two databases, we were able to piece together a disturbing picture of national trends in population mental health and police use of deadly force. (We’ve posted online links to the data and summaries of our findings.)
What’s clear — statistically significant by every sophisticated analytical measure — is that significant collateral damage occurs each time an Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, or Antwon Rose is shot and killed by the police. Their deaths are not theirs and their families’ to suffer alone. Our research shows that other black people who are not directly affected may also experience acute stress from these tragedies.
At the population level, the mental health fallout is substantial. We found that police killings of unarmed black Americans are responsible for more than 50 million additional days of poor mental health per year among black Americans. This mental health burden is comparable to that associated with diabetes, a disease that strikes 1 in 5 black Americans.
Mental distress on this scale — occurring year after year — is unthinkable. If we were talking about the flu, we would call it an epidemic and urge all Americans to take precautions for themselves and their families.
Importantly, we did not find that police killings of white Americans or armed black Americans had any significant impacts on mental health among black Americans, nor did we find that police killings of unarmed black Americans had any significant mental health effects among white Americans. This specificity is important: It suggests that the adverse mental health effects are not simply driven by indirect exposure to violent events and the resulting experience of vicarious trauma.
Instead, black America experiences collective psychological upheaval in the aftermath of police killings of unarmed black Americans because such incidents reflect structural racism — the totality of ways in which our society devalues black lives.
Beyond the corrosive effects of these killings on population mental health, they undermine the very mission carried out on a daily basis by the 765,000 law-enforcement personnel nationwide who regularly put themselves in harm’s way to defend those they are under oath to protect. These killings also undermine civic engagement and shred the social contract between police officers and the people they serve. All of these reasons should, in and of themselves, provide sufficient justification to support police reform movements like Campaign Zero.
More than that, these killings carry the weight of our country’s long history of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans, reflect persistent inequities in the criminal justice system, and — intentionally or not — send a signal that our society does not value black lives. These killings must stop.
Alexander C. Tsai, M.D., is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Jacob Bor, Sc.D., is an epidemiologist and economist at Boston University. Atheendar S. Venkataramani, M.D., is a general internist and economist at the University of Pennsylvania.