Posted on June 15, 2021

News about Racial Violence Harms Black People’s Mental Health

Melba Newsome, Scientific American, June 8, 2021


A growing body of research has documented the detrimental effects of both interpersonal and structural racism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that centuries of racism have had a profound and negative impact on the mental and physical health of people of color. Investigators at Columbia University found that experiencing racism can result in traumatic stress linked to negative mental health outcomes, such as depression, anger and low self-esteem. The American Public Health Association calls racism a social determinant of health akin to housing, education, and employment and a barrier to health equity.

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA adds a new layer to an understanding of the pervasive health effects of racism. Lead author David Curtis of the University of Utah and his colleagues showed that widely publicized anti-Black violence negatively affects the mental health of many Black Americans even if they do not directly experience it.

The study’s authors conducted the first nationwide scientific assessment of these media reports using 49 high-profile incidents that occurred between 2013 and 2017. They included media reports of 38 police killings of Black individuals, as well as coverage of about nine legal decisions not to indict or convict officers involved in some of those killings.

Using weekly data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, the researchers assessed the mental health impacts on people during this period. Black respondents reported more poor mental health days during the time when two or more of these events happened in the country. Legal decisions not to prosecute or convict the officers involved in the killings were most clearly associated with poor mental health days, Curtis says. This reflects Black people’s concern and dismay about what they see as the systemic injustice that follows a much publicized incident and the failure to hold anyone accountable more than their reaction to the initial wrong perpetrated by any single individual.


Psychologist Vanessa Volpe runs the Black Health Lab at North Carolina State University, where she studies the impact of direct and vicarious racism on physical health. {snip}

“Because exposure to racism is chronic, frequent and can happen at any time, you have to be vigilant to protect yourself,” Volpe says. “Over time, your body is going to experience this wear and tear that will result in much greater rates of morbidity and earlier mortality for Black folks, compared to white people. A lot of times we think, ‘Just get a better car or replace the parking brake,’ but that’s a Band-Aid. What can we do so that Black people don’t even have that exposure in the first place?”