According to a poll, Black people in the United States experience high levels of fear during experiences with police.

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A recent study reinforces what many young Black Americans already know: they are vulnerable to anxiety disorders, particularly when they come into contact with the police or anticipate coming into contact with the police.

“I think it’s important, given what’s going on in society,” survey author and Race and Opportunity Lab Manager at Washington University in St. Louis Robert Motley said.


“And I think it helps us to get a better understanding because a lot of this research on police violence and mental health outcomes have really only started burgeoning since the Mike Brown incident,” Motley said, referencing the shooting of a Black teenager by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

“We still don’t fully know its impact, number one, because we don’t really know the true rates of exposure, not even how many people are killed by police but how many people are just exposed to nonfatal police use of force,” he said.

The study showed that among the 300 survey participants, all of whom attended a community college or university in St. Louis, police communication apprehension was relatively high.

Male gender, unemployment, and having seen more gang abuse were all correlated with increased police encounter anxiety.

Researchers used a scale to measure the severity of anxiety symptoms encountered by a person in the previous 30 days after or when expecting police interaction in light of previous encounters, such as personally observing police use of force, watching use of force, or seeing a recording of police use of force in the media.

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The study also discovered that, on average, survey participants had observed in-person police use of force more than seven times and had seen footage of police use of force more than 34 times.

Participants have already experienced group abuse (violent crimes committed by people other than police) an average of more than ten times in their lives.

Motley said his research focus had always been in community violence exposure to young Black people, but he was motivated more by the violence that occurred shortly after he arrived in St. Louis in 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed youth, was shot by a police officer.

Brown’s name is among those known to those who research police brutality or read the press, including George Floyd, who was killed in Minnesota last year.


Last weekend, the research was discussed at the American Psychiatric Association’s simulated annual conference. Before they are written in a peer-reviewed journal, findings reported at medical meetings are considered preliminary.

When people do not get therapy with their fear, it can lead to habits such as drug abuse, mental shutting down, and not participating in education. According to Motley, it may have a negative effect on families and marriages.


Anxiety can activate the body’s stress response system making it hard to focus, prioritize tasks, and causing a person to be preoccupied with a sense of danger around them, said Dr. Jessica Isom, a psychiatrist at Codman Square Health Center in Boston. Chronic stress can lead to other health issues, from high blood pressure to poor sleep quality, she added.

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“Chronic stress experienced across the board as a person who is Black in this country, essentially, it’s all contributing to the same thing, which is a detrimental effect on the body and the mind,” said Isom, who wasn’t part of the study.

There will be causes for police encounter fear in daily life, she said, from spotting a police vehicle while driving to being preoccupied with whether the officers are paying attention to you and would pull you over to seeing a security guard at a mall or in a bank.

Providers such as physicians and teachers will help to alleviate race-based tension by ensuring that their job does not contribute to it. Isom recommends a trauma-informed approach for police officers in particular.


“The only way to ensure that you’re approaching people in a way that’s humane is the same thing that we do in health care. We have to approach people from a trauma-informed lens, which means that you would view the interaction through the lens of maybe this person has not had a positive prior experience and might be reacting to a catastrophic idea of what this interaction means,” Isom said.

“For that reason, you would take extra care to 1. check in on how they’re experiencing the interaction; 2. provide information about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and, 3. keep yourself under control. Your heightened stress response as the person who holds the power is not going to help the person who is subjected to your power,” she said.

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Motley’s next goal is to survey a broader group of people and start establishing nationwide averages for vulnerability to crime.

These results could make physicians be more conscious that anytime they meet someone with an ethnic minority in their practises, including the emergency department, they can determine a person’s susceptibility to aggression and anxiety symptoms, he said.

“And hopefully we can provide them with the adequate care that they need,” Motley said.

More information

The Washington Post has maintained a database of shootings by on-duty police officers since 2015.

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