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Mental Health, Police Brutality, and Black People

By Glenn Ellis

Have you ever put any real attention on the mental health issues in African Americans associated with police brutality? The data is compelling, and indisputable.

If anyone has any doubt about the magnitude of what is happening, the case was laid out by Radley Balko of the Washington Post:

“A 2017 NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll found that half of blacks said they had been unfairly stopped by a police officer. About 6 in 10 said they or a family member had. That means that if you know two black people, one of them feels they’ve been treated unfairly by police.

Philando Castile, a legal gun owner who was shot and killed during a traffic stop despite by-the-book obedience, had previously been pulled over more than 50 times for petty traffic violations…According to a 2015 YouGov/Huffington Post poll, 74 percent of black parents had cautioned their children to be cautious around police, versus 32 percent of white parents. A 2016 Pew poll found that 7 in 10 white people thought police usually use the right amount of force, versus just 1 in 3 black people. A 2017 Pew poll asked police officers if the high-profile police killings of black people were isolated incidents or part of a more systemic problem…”

Bottom line? White people in this country enjoy a privilege (other than just being white) that we can’t fathom: police brutality is an afterthought in their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters.

So, right now, many of you are wondering, what does this have to do with mental health? Well, you’ll probably be as surprised as I was when I met Jacob Bor, a UPENN School of Public Health researcher. Dr. Bor (and colleagues) did some groundbreaking, eye-opening research in 2018.

Let me give my understanding of what the study reveals.

If anyone (of any ethnicity or race) has a son who is killed by the police, it is has a traumatic impact on his survivors; his family, his friends, his neighbors; in fact, everyone who knew him.


Looking at it another way, this says that when any black person sees, or hears about, a black male killed by police, they experience “collective trauma”. But wait, it gets better; the same thing does not hold true for white people!

First, we should understand that trauma is simply the impact on a person form an event or injury.

Collective trauma is what happens when this impact is felt by an entire group of people, or a community; or even a nation. The events following the 9/11 terrorist bombings left this country in what would be considered an example of collective trauma.

So, you see folks, what we are witnessing is an example of “collective trauma”. As an African American community in this country, each one of us has carried the burdens of structural racism throughout our respective lifetimes that our shared experiences that has formed a shared emotional bond with every other black person in this country.

The effect on the overall mental health of African Americans is enormous! African Americans suffer more poor mental health days from police killings of unarmed African Americans than from diabetes.

This study shows that witnessing or hearing about violence, alone, does not account for mental health impact. Instead, it is clear that only African Americans experience this “collective trauma” following police killings of other unarmed African Americans, only because of the shared experiences of structural racism.

What I found fascinating was that not only did the study find that the same thing didn’t when whites saw unarmed blacks (or whites) killed by police, African Americans don’t experience this collective trauma when the police killed and armed black (white) man!

All in all, the point of this column is the provide some contextual framework for understanding the sense of range and pain many African Americans are filling at this time.

You could say that we reached our “collective tipping point”.

Brother George Floyd was the drop of water that caused our collective glass to overflow, resulting in a collective outrage that none of us have seen before. The generations of trauma from the pain and sufferings of our Ancestors, that we each carry with us, just reached its’ tipping point.


To the outside observer, don’t judge our story by the chapter you walked in on. As my dear friend Terrie Williams said in the title of her book: Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.

Like many of you, I have been inundated by some well-intentioned people, wondering what they can do.

I point them to the facts and the evidence. In the conclusions of his study, Dr. Bor states, “efforts to reduce health disparities should explicitly target structural racism.”

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

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