Contact with Cops Causes Anxiety in Young Black Adults

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Anxiety from police contact was moderately high among young Black adults in America, a researcher reported.

In a survey of Black adults (ages 18-29) enrolled in college in St. Louis, 30-day levels of anxiety due to police contact held moderately high across this group, reported Robert Motley, PhD, of Washington University in Saint Louis.

Rated on a scale of 6-24, police contact anxiety as a result of being a victim of police use of force averaged a score of 13.68 among these young adults. Similarly, there was an average anxiety score of 13.35 as a result of first-hand witnessing police use force against someone in real-life, he said in a presentation at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) virtual meeting.

Even exposure to police force in the media directly affected anxiety levels, as these young adults saw an average anxiety score of 13.01 as a result of viewing a video online or on the television of police using force, Motley stated.

The study participants were, on average, a victim of police use of force nearly twice over their lifetime (average age of 20), and on average, this group said they witnessed police use force against someone in person nearly eight times. They also reported seeing media videos of police use of force on average nearly 35 times over their lifetime.

Certain trends emerged within this group of young Black adults (49.3% male). For example, those who worked full-time were significantly less likely to report high levels of police contact anxiety after seeing a video of police use of force compared with adults who were unemployed (b=-2.82, P<0.05).

Additionally, those who reported higher rates of witnessing community violence were significantly more likely to experience more severe police contact anxiety as a result of being a victim of police use of force themselves (b =0.11, P<0.05).

“We feel an assessment of police contact anxiety should be conducted by clinicians working with ethnic minorities who are most at-risk for exposure to police violence,” Motley noted during an APA press conference. “Future research needs to be done that examines the long-term effects of exposure to police violence on mental and behavioral outcomes for Black emerging adults.”

The study collected data from 300 Black adults who were enrolled at either a community college or a university.

The researchers explained adapted questions from the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, and developed a scale of six items. Participant were asked if felt any of the six items within the past 30 days:

  • Worrying of police contact being alone during police contact, contact at night, or in a secluded area)
  • Fearful of police contact (losing my life, being assaulted, falsely accused of a crime during contact)
  • Urge to use the bathroom during police contact anxiety
  • Unable to relax during police contact anxiety
  • Urge to avoid police contact anxiety (dressing differently, not calling the police when in need of help)
  • Need to have a talk with your child about avoiding police contact/how to behave when they’re engaged in police contact

Participants were asked three questions graded on a 4-point scale between 0 (not at all) to 3 (severe), and the questions were framed three separate ways in order to capture anxiety that was a direct result of police contact or in anticipation of police contact, according to the authors:

  • Questions prefaced with: “As a victim of police use of force…”
  • Questions prefaced with: “As a result of witnessing in person police use of force against someone…”
  • Questions prefaced with: “As a result of seeing a video in the media of police use of force…”

“This is a very important issue,” commented press conference moderator Jeffrey Borenstein, MD, of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. “We know that anxiety is an extremely important condition and symptom across the board for all groups, and often anxiety isn’t evaluated in the way that it needs to be. I think this is a great study that will lead to further research in this important area.”

Motley said that “we want to replicate this with a more diverse ethnic group of individuals, so Hispanic, Latino, Asian.” He noted that “when you’re exposed to this police violence, regardless of your ethnicity, you may experience some of these police contact anxiety symptoms as well.”

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    Kristen Monaco is a staff writer, focusing on endocrinology, psychiatry, and dermatology news. Based out of the New York City office, she’s worked at the company for nearly five years.

Disclosures

The study was funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

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