The Mental Health Risks of Secondhand Exposure to Police Violence

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In 1986, the Surgeon General released a report entitled The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking, concluding that secondhand smoke was a major health risk to nonsmokers. Since then, the research linking secondhand smoke to a host of health ills, including heart disease, lung cancer, and childhood asthma, has become even more robust.

Current estimates are that it causes the premature deaths of 41,000 adults and more than 400 infants each year.

We are now learning something similar about the long-term mental health risks of secondhand exposure to police violence, especially for children of color.

A study released this month, entitled Unpacking Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Emotional Distress Among Adolescents During Witnessed Police Stops (lead author Dylan Jackson of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health), examined the racial differences in distress levels among Black, white, and Latinx young people, born between 1998 and 2000, living in urban areas who witnessed—but were not themselves subjected to―police stops.

The authors uncovered “significant” racial disparities among youth who reported “feeling angry, scared and unsafe,” with far higher levels of distress exhibited by Black and Latinx youth than white youth.

They concluded:

Youth of color are more likely to report emotional distress during witnessed police stops, largely due to the officer intrusiveness (defined as ‘frisking, pat downs, searching an individual’s belongings or pockets, using harsh language or racial slurs, and threatening or using physical force;) and perceived injustices that characterize these stops.

And they suggested that these disparities may be a “significant driver of mental health inequities” among urban-born youth.

“We didn’t expect the findings to be as clear-cut as they are,” said Dan Semenza, an assistant professor at Rutgers University–Camden and one of the study’s authors.

“These everyday stops are having ripple effects on the community, even if people themselves aren’t directly involved in altercations.”

This study adds to our knowledge about the effects of “secondhand police violence” on the population most likely to be the target of that violence—African Americans.

Another study, published in 2018, found that the self-reported mental health of Black adults declined in the aftermath of police shootings reported in their state, with the “largest effects on mental health occurred in the one–two months after exposure.”

Notably, these impacts were not reported by whites living in the same states.

Based on our interactions and discussions with youth for over a decade, the key factors in the heightened distress levels experienced by Black and Latino teens are their perceptions of witnessing injustice and officer intrusiveness.

Over and over again, we hear from young people surprising nuance and insights about the role of, and need for, police.

Many concede that police have a difficult and stressful job, and that youth and their peers are not always easy to deal with. Some express appreciation for the care and support that police officers have shown to them, particularly in disturbing or upsetting situations.

However, developmentally, teens are intensely focused on perceptions of fairness and justice, and they strenuously object to―and are often traumatized by―what they view as disrespectful and harsh treatment by police, particularly when it is unwarranted. This trauma can lead to the “fight or flight” response which puts so many in legal peril when they encounter police or other authority figures.

Their responses also can spill over into academic performance, into long-term views of authority, and even into their likelihood of becoming system-involved.

For instance, one recent study found that “exposure to police violence leads to persistent decreases in GPA, increased incidence of emotional disturbance and lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment for Black and Latino students.”

Another identified being stopped at school by police officers as a “potent” predictor of heightened emotional distress and post-traumatic stress symptoms in youth.

The study noted that the presence of guards and metal detectors in schools significantly increased students’ perceptions of fear.

Now we know that this emotional distress and trauma extends to those who witness the stops, and not just to those who experience these interactions first-hand. That considerably broadens the pool of young people who suffer long-term as a result of police abuse and violence.

Today, it is commonly accepted that secondhand smoke is extremely dangerous, and that there is only real remedy: individuals, particularly children, should be able to live, work and play in smoke-free environments.

The same logic applies to eradicating the harmful effects of secondhand police violence.

Children and young people have every right to expect to grow up without either experiencing or witnessing abusive, intrusive, or otherwise unjust/unfair actions by police.

johanna wald

Johanna Wald

As the authors of this study note, to stop the traumatic ripple effects, it is imperative that we invest “in changing these policing practices…Otherwise, it’s going to continue.”

Johanna Wald, a communications and policy specialist with Strategies for Youth, has written and presented extensively about issues related to criminal and juvenile justice reform, educational equity, and implicit bias.

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