Anti-Black Violence Is Associated with Poor Mental Health for Black Americans

Police and state-sanctioned violence against Black persons in the United States is a complex, current and historical problem. The public health impact of anti-Black or other racial violence in the United States has not been extensively examined. A 2021 study supported by NIMHD examined the impact of anti-Black violence on the mental health of Black Americans to better understand how these incidents affect community health and well-being.

In this study, investigators tested the hypothesis that national psychological distress would be higher during weeks that racial violence occurred and coincide with higher national interest in those incidents. They compiled 49 high publicity incidents of racial violence in the U.S. that occurred between 2013 and 2017, including four different types of incidents: 28 incidents of police killing an unarmed Black person, 10 incidents of police killing an armed Black person, 9 incidents in which the police officer involved was not indicted, and 2 hate crime murders of a Black person. Weekly mental health was assessed using two metrics:

  1. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) was analyzed from January 2012 through December 2017 to calculate the average number of poor mental health days reported by Black and White respondents.
  2. The Google Trends webtool was analyzed for changes in national searches of words and terms for psychological distress (e.g., “depression,” “how to suicide”).
A Black woman sits alone on a couch, clasping her knees to chest, staring vacantly forward

Black BRFSS respondents reported a significantly higher average of 0.31 more poor mental health days in the past 30 days during weeks with two high publicity incidents of racial violence compared with weeks with no incidents. Black respondents also reported a significantly higher average of 0.13 more poor mental health days when there was high national interest in racial incidents. There was no significant difference in poor mental health days or national search interest in White respondents during weeks with or without an incident.

The downstream implications of these events were also correlated with poor mental health in Black respondents. The decisions not to indict or convict the officer involved with an incident (these outcomes were combined for this analysis) were significant predictors of poor mental health days among Black persons. Importantly, the study identifies that news coverage of the legal decisions related to racially violent incidents is an important factor influencing poor mental health days among Black individuals. The investigators also examined associations between each individual type of incident and national psychological distress. The only significant association was for incidents involving police killings of armed Black persons, in which they reported a decreased (-0.28) effect on national psychological distress.

While this study reported on the short-term impact of racial incidents, the investigators did not examine whether societal racial stress acts to affect poor mental health days over a longer period of time. The authors concluded that continued study of national racial violence is necessary and will need to consider the long-term implications of mental health among Black individuals.

Citation:

Curtis, D.S., Washburn, T., Lee, H., Smith, K.R., Jaewhan, K., Martz, C.D., Kramer, M.R., & Chae, D.H. (2021). Highly public anti-Black violence is associated with poor mental health days for Black Americans. PNAS, 118(17), e2019624118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2019624118.

Page updated August 6, 2021