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Police Violence Is Linked to Suicidality and Other Mental-Health Concerns

A new study shows that exposure to police violence is linked with negative mental-health outcomes.
Police advance on demonstrators protesting on August 17th, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

While special attention has been given to fatal shootings by police, non-fatal forms of police violence have significant health effects too.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that exposure to police violence is linked with poor mental-health outcomes.

Published on Wednesday, the study surveyed people in New York City and Baltimore about their experiences with police and police violence. Respondents were asked if they'd experienced any of five types of violence from the police: physical violence with a weapon (such as a taser or baton), physical violence without a weapon, psychological violence (such as slurs, threatening language, intimidation, or stopping without cause), sexual violence, or neglect (for example, failing to respond adequately when a respondent asked for help or protection).

Police violence is widespread in the United States, and the study authors note that special attention has been given to fatal shootings and deaths in police custody with the rise of body cameras and citizen video accounts—but non-fatal forms of police violence have significant health outcomes, too, and aren't tracked or popularized the way fatal events are.

In fact, all the forms of violence the study asked about—even the non-physical ones—were associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation. Suicide attempts and psychotic episodes were closely related to "more assaultive forms of violence," according to the authors, and these forms also had more dramatic effects than psychological taunting or neglect.

Communities of color and LGBTQ people were more likely to report experiences of police violence, which tracks with the other data we have on the subject. And while the sample size for transgender people was very small—six people out of 1,000 total—those six people reported high rates of victimization. Three said they'd experienced police sexual violence, and four said they'd experienced physical violence with a weapon. Psychological violence was especially common among sexual minority groups, and 9.5 percent of black respondents reported physical violence, compared with 2.7 percent of white ones.

Additionally, the authors speculate that sexual violence and physical violence with a weapon are the most likely to be related to negative mental-health outcomes. This is also in line with other research, which has found that sexual violence—especially rape—leaves lifelong consequences, as does violent victimization.

Of course, it's hard to prove a causative link, especially because the people who were more likely to have been hurt by police were also more likely to have had other sources of trauma (in childhood or in adulthood) and to have committed crimes. There's also a need for more research on the outcomes of police encounters with people who are already mentally ill, as those interactions are associated with high rates of violence, and the research isn't clear about why.

The responses of marginalized groups in both cities pointed to high and disproportional rates of police violence, and showed that violence was associated with negative mental-health outcomes in the short term. According to the authors, that prevalence shows a need for clinicians to be aware of police violence and its health effects on patients.