Police Contact Tied to Elevated Anxiety in Young Black Adults

Pauline Anderson

May 03, 2021

Young Black adults who witness or experience police violence have significantly elevated levels of anxiety, new research shows.

Dr Robert Motley

In the first study to quantify the impact of police contact anxiety, investigators found it was associated with moderately severe anxiety levels in this group of individuals, highlighting the need to screen for exposure to police violence in this patient population, study investigator Robert O. Motley Jr, PhD, Manager, Race & Opportunity Lab, Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, told Medscape Medical News.

"If you're working in an institution and providing clinical care, mental health care, or behavior health care, these additional measures should be included to get a much more holistic view of the exposure of these individuals in terms of traumatic events. These assessments can inform your decisions around care," Motley added.

The findings were presented at the virtual American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2021 Annual Meeting.

"Alarming" Rates of Exposure

Evidence shows anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent conditions for Black people aged 18 to 29 years — an age group described as "emergent adulthood" because these individuals haven't yet taken on full responsibilities of adulthood.

Research shows Black emergent adults are three to four times more likely than other ethnic groups to be exposed to actual or threatened non-fatal police violence, said Motley.

"So they didn't die, but were exposed to force, which could be things like police yelling at them, hitting or kicking them, pointing a gun at them, or tasing them."

These individuals are also two to three times more likely to experience exposure to fatal police violence, and to be unarmed and killed, said Motley.

Evidence shows a clear link between exposure to stressful or traumatic events and anxiety disorders, but there has been little research examining the relationship between exposure to police violence and anxiety disorders among Black emergent adults, he said.

To assess the prevalence and correlates of "police contact anxiety" the investigators used computer assisted surveys to collect data from 300 young Black college students in St. Louis, Missouri, who had been exposed to police violence at some point in their lives. The mean age of the sample was 20.4 years and included an equal number of men and women.

Work status for the previous year showed almost one quarter (23.6%) were unemployed and about half worked part-time. Almost two thirds (62.6%) had an annual income of less than $10,000.

Respondents reported they had personally experienced police violence almost twice (a mean of 1.89) during their lifetime. The mean number of times they witnessed police using force against someone else was 7.82. Respondents also reported they had watched videos showing police use of force on the internet or television an average of 34.5 times.

This, said Motley, isn't surprising given the growing number of young adults — of all races — who are using social media platforms to upload and share videos.

The researchers also looked at witnessing community violence (WCV), unrelated to police violence. Here, respondents had an average of 10.9 exposures.

"These results tell me these individuals are exposed to high levels of violence in their lifetime, which should be alarming," said Motley.

Protectors or Predators?

To examine the impact of police contact anxiety caused either by direct experience, or as a result of witnessing, or seeing a video of police use of violence in the past 30 days, the researchers created a 'police contact anxiety' scale.

Respondents were asked six questions pertaining specifically to experiences during, or in anticipation of, police contact and its effects on anxiety levels.

For each of the six questions, participants rated the severity of anxiety on a scale of 0 (least severe) to 3 (most severe) for each exposure type. The final score had a potential range of 0 to 24.

Results showed police contact anxiety was moderately severe for all three exposure types with scores ranging from 13 to 14.

Ordinary least square regression analyses showed that compared with unemployed participants, those who worked full-time were less likely to have higher police contact anxiety as a result of seeing a video of police use of force (P < .05) — a finding Motley said was not surprising.

Employment, he noted, promotes individual self-efficacy, social participation, and mental health, which may provide a "buffer" to the effects of watching videos of police violence.

Motley noted that police officers "have been entrusted to serve and protect" the community, but "rarely face consequences when they use force against Black emergent adults; they're rarely held accountable."

These young Black adults "may perceive police officers as more of a threat to personal safety instead of a protector of it."

Additional bivariate analyses showed that males had significantly higher scores than females for police contact anxiety because of witnessing police use of force.

This, too, was not surprising since males are exposed to more violence in general, said Motley.

It's important to replicate the findings using a much larger and more diverse sample, he said. His next research project will be to collect data from a nationally representative sample of emerging adults across different ethnic groups and examining a range of different variables.

Commenting on the findings, Jeffrey Borenstein, MD, president & CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation and editor-in-chief of Psychiatric News, called it "outstanding."

"This is a very important issue," said Borenstein, who moderated a press briefing that featured the study.

"We know 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. This is a great study that will lead to further research in this important area," he added.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Motley and Borenstein have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2021 Annual Meeting: Poster 4822. Presented May 2, 2021.

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