Reporting of US police killings harms Black people’s mental health


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Demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest in London following the death of George Floyd in 2020


Black people are more likely than white people to have their mental health affected by strings of highly publicised US police killings of Black people, according to the first nationwide scientific assessment of these media reports

Police violence against Black people in the US often leads to extensive media coverage. David Curtis at the University of Utah and his colleagues wanted to understand how the mental health of Black individuals was affected after such events.


The team combined a database of US police killings with Google Trends data to identify 47 high-profile incidents of police killing Black individuals or subsequent legal decisions that occurred between 2013 and 2017, including the killing of Michael Brown. These comprised the reporting of 38 police killings of Black individuals, and coverage of about nine legal decisions not to convict officers involved in some of those killings. The team also looked at the reporting of two convicted murderers with links to white supremacy for a total of 49 events.

The researchers assessed the mental health impacts on people during this time period using weekly data from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, a large-scale health-related telephone survey funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, this included 696 responses a week from Black people and 6707 from white people – more than 200,000 Black individuals and 2 million white respondents in total between 2012 and 2017.

The survey asks respondents whether they experienced poor mental health days in the past month, including those related to stress, depression and problems with emotions

Black respondents reported more poor mental health days during weeks when two or more of the selected events occurred in the country. Conversely, white respondents’ mental health wasn’t correlated to the timing of the events.

“It was actually legal decisions to not prosecute or convict the officers involved in the specific killings that are the most clearly associated with poor mental health days,” says Curtis. This suggests people are more concerned about injustice and accountability, he says.

“[The research] felt really timely, especially after the large-scale protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, although his own murder is not part of this study,” says Curtis. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the disproportionate killing of Black people by US police. This study spotlights the collective trauma and mental health impacts.

“We assume the only way an event would have a widespread effect on mental health is if it’s really well-known,” says Curtis. “Many of these killings shifted from a local to a national consciousness – they became a national issue.”

The study adds to evidence that increased exposure to reporting of police killings is harming Black people’s mental health. “There are currently reporting guidelines that outline best practice for reporting on suicide to help prevent copycat deaths,” says Jordan DeVylder at Fordham University in New York. “It may be time for similar guidelines around racist violence to help minimise the broader impact on Black American’s mental health.”

Alexander Tsai at Harvard University, suggests that media should “weigh the potential benefits of providing documentary evidence, generating outrage and galvanising the movement versus trying not to perpetuate and sustain racialised trauma”.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2019624118

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