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The Ripple Effect: Police Violence, Black Americans and Mental Health

By Melissa Riddle Chalos

Without question, exposure to violence produces a ripple effect that may have long-term negative consequences for victims. But what about entire communities exposed to systemic oppression and violence at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve?

According to a 2018 study published in The Lancet that analyzed data from over 103,000 black adults, the medical journal found that in the days and months following police violence against unarmed African Americans, a significant spike in mental health distress among the population occurred.1 The conclusion was this: the perception and experience of systemic racism and the anxiety it produces impacts not just the victims of police violence and their families, but the community at large.

The Impact Does Not Discriminate

Black Lives Matter protestSo what does this look like in minority communities, some of which are already dealing with poverty, rising crime rates and addiction issues?

For those who have experienced police violence firsthand, the psychological impact — while rarely talked about — can negatively impact victims for years to come. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as a racing heartbeat, flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks and hypervigilance, are a common experience among those who have had fear-inducing contact with police. And given that African Americans experience police force at a greater rate than other racial groups, the elevated rates of depression — 10 percent greater than non-Hispanic whites — are, sadly, to be expected. Even within the African American community, suicide rates among black men are four times greater than among black women.2

For African American men who are arrested and incarcerated, the psychological costs are extremely high. When compared to other African American men, they have:

  • 16 percent higher severity of discrimination
  • 14 percent higher severity of depression
  • 13 percent higher severity of distress

There is a lot of overlap between those who spend time in prison and those who experience mental health conditions, and no other ethnic group has been incarcerated more or longer than African American men.3

For those in the black community who have not personally experienced police violence, the ripple effect is still keenly felt. Viewing violent encounters with police on television exacerbates anxiety and depression among a population that is already 10 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress than their white counterparts.2

Systemic racial trauma also has a profound negative impact on education in the black community. Research from Johns Hopkins University published in Sociology of Education shows that children living in neighborhoods where they are exposed to violence experience:

  • More attention problems
  • Lower test scores
  • Higher dropout rates
  • More discipline issues
  • More depression4

Additionally, being exposed to police violence naturally causes feelings of disillusionment and distrust of a government institution that is supposed to exist to protect the community. This, in addition to other systemic social issues like homelessness, exposure to crime and higher incarceration rates can increase depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, which keeps the cycle going.

The Impact, Compounded

Black woman portraitThe negative impact that police violence has on mental health in the African American community is especially disheartening because the help they need is largely out of reach. In minority communities, mental health care is often:

  • Unavailable – There are significant discrepancies in mental health treatment in low-income black communities. Primary care physicians rarely address mental health, and there are few to no culturally educated mental health professionals available to address issues unique to this community, should treatment become available.
  • Unaffordable – Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, 20 percent of African Americans are still uninsured, and cost is a significant factor that contributes to why many black individuals don’t seek treatment.5
  • Unacceptable – The cultural stigmas that say mental health issues are a sign of weakness or can be fully addressed through spiritual practice keeps many in need of mental health care from even talking about the subject, much more from getting the help they need.

“Making mental healthcare accessible and affordable for African Americans requires coordinated efforts across healthcare systems, and advocacy and activism in the policy arena,” said Dr. Ruth C. White, professor of social work at USC, in a recent NAACP address. “Making it acceptable for African Americans to talk about mental health requires ongoing conversations across sectors such as places of work, places of worship and the media. The more it is done, the easier it will be.”5

Everyone Can Heal

The Canyon offers a place of restoration and healing for people of all races and backgrounds. We understand that African Americans face a greater risk of mental health challenges directly related to the racial discrimination and injustice they experience as part of the cultural norms in this country.

If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD or other mental health challenges as a result of racial trauma caused by exposure to violence, we can help. We will work with you toward a greater understanding of mental health care, what it is, how it works and how it can help you cope with life as you’ve experienced it.


1 Logan, Erin B. “This Is How Police Killings Affect Black Mental Health.” The Washington Post, July 9, 2018.

2 “Mental Health and African Americans.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Accessed August 13, 2018.

3 Thomas, Laurel. “Incarceration Creates More Mental Health Concerns for African American Men.” University of Michigan News, April 18, 2017.

4 Rosen, Jill. “Neighborhood Violence Can Hurt Test Scores — Even for Kids Who Don’t Experience It.” Johns Hopkins University, June 12, 2018.

5 White, Ruth C. “We Need to Normalize Mental Health Care in the Black Community.” Thrive Global, July 27, 2018.

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