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Ashley Cleveland brings flowers to the George Floyd mural on the corner of 800 South and 300 West after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the killing of George Floyd in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Anti-Black violence increases poor mental health days for Black Americans, study finds

By Lauren Bennett, KSL.com | Posted - Apr. 22, 2021 at 7:37 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 by former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin, the impact of the tragedy was felt across the country.

For Courtney Kelly, a Utah rapper, it felt deeply personal and she struggled to focus that week; however, she noticed her white peers didn't really feel the same way.

"I do feel sometimes that Utah kind of lives in a bubble," she explained. "Or they really don't kind of grasp what is going on outside in the world. Like for example, when the Black Lives Matter protests were initially happening and then the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, I just felt like people were very out of touch or they didn't even know like that's something that was happening until it kind of reached a boiling point here with protests and riots in Salt Lake.

"I just felt like, before that, people were just continuing on like business as usual," she added. "And it was very odd to me, because for me and my friends or my family that were in other states, that was pretty much all we could talk about."

It turns out, Kelly's experience wasn't unique — and there's research to prove it.

A new study authored by a University of Utah professor and published in the National Academy of Sciences in April explored this concept.

Researchers identified 49 publicized incidents of racial violence between 2012 and 2017 and tracked national interest in the events with Google Trends. To track the psychological impact of these events, they used two methods — Google search words relating to suicide, anxiety and depression and the average of poor mental health days reported in a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey during the four-year period.

Annually, the risk factor system has more than 400,000 phone interviews with adults making it the "largest continuous health survey system in the world," according to the University of Utah.

The study found that Black Americans suffered from a higher number of adverse mental health days in the aftermath of highly publicized acts of racial violence more so than their white counterparts, where the number of adverse mental health days did not change.

"Violent acts that are widely publicized and perceived as anti-Black may harm the mental health of observers, particularly Black Americans," the authors wrote. "Reducing racial violence, including police killings of Black individuals, is likely to benefit the mental of Black Americans nationally."

Past research has shown that these types of racially motivated killings have impacted those in the immediate area, but this study shows the impacts are felt far beyond the local community.

Related

"As we saw from the protests following the killing of George Floyd, the grief, outrage and injustice that people experience doesn't just relate to your immediate community," said David Curtis in a news release about the study. Curtis is an assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the U. and an author of the study. "If we're thinking about what's the population health impact, our findings show the mental toll is not just confined to the community where the incident took place."

As Chauvin's trial came to a close this week, ending in his guilty verdict, the murder of Floyd forced Black Americans across the country to relive the incident, including Darius Bost, associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah.

When the witnesses of Floyd's murder testified, Bost said he had to turn the sound off and simply read the captions; he couldn't handle hearing the grief in their voices.

"I couldn't watch it anymore. It was really painful," he said.

What disturbs Bost about the research most isn't the increase of poor mental health days for Black Americans — to him, that was a given — but it's the lack of impact these events appear to have in white Americans' lives.

"What's most startling to me about this study is that white people actually are not affected," he said. "Because it is human life that is being lost, and it is that same kind of devaluation … that is evident in the fact that white Americans don't experience this as a trauma or traumatic in the same way.

"I think it's really still a kind of skewed logic to focus on how it affects African Americans and not sort of interrogate why it doesn't affect majority America," he added.

'It could have been you'

For Black Americans, there is a shared traumatic experience in these violent acts.

"What we have is much more of a collectivist orientation, as opposed to an individualistic orientation," explained William Smith, professor of ethnic studies and department chair of education, culture and society at the U.

And it's not just about Floyd, either. Violent crimes are committed against Black Americans often.

Breonna Taylor. Ma'Khia Bryant. Ahmaud Arbery. Jacob Blake. Botham Jean. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. And so many more. Not a lot seems to have changed over the years, according to Smith.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a paper accusing the U.S. government of genocide against Black individuals. It was authored by the Civil Rights Congress and titled "We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People." It was presented at the UN in Paris in 1951.

"1951 to 2021, very little has changed," Smith said. "We've made major gains in some areas, but the crimes against Black people are consistent."

Having increased anxiety after hearing about these events is unfortunately common for Black Americans, Smith said.


Unless these issues are really completely eradicated, there's going to be a continuation of that mental trauma that a lot of people of color, especially Black people, are going to have to deal with.

–Courtney Kelly, Utah rapper


"There's a concept called link lives and what you see is that if some harm comes to one person, one Black person, you feel it as though it were you or somebody you're related to, because it could have been you," he explained.

Smith is an expert in the theoretical concept of "Racial Battle Fatigue," which describes the "daily race related stresses that we experience," he explained.

It's something Kelly has experienced, as well. In the wake of Chauvin's conviction, while she felt relieved with the guilty verdict, she noticed she was more jumpy and nervous following the news.

She quickly realized she had a subconscious fear someone would come up to her and talk about the trial in a negative way.

"Is someone going to target me or say something nasty to me in response to the conviction?" she recalled thinking.

Black Americans have to deal with racist societal issues on a daily basis, on top of other stressors in their lives, Kelly pointed out.

"It can be very taxing," she said.

It's time for change

While a lot of the findings in the paper might seem obvious to some, Smith said it's important to study these phenomenons to show the world there is a problem.

"It brings much more evidence to understanding the plight of Black folks in America," Smith explained.

Using this research to enact change is what's really important, Bost added.

For example, this year the only Black woman in Utah's Legislature, Rep. Sandra Hollins, proposed a resolution identifying racism as a public health crisis; however, the bill was ultimately dropped and Hollins said she would pick it up again next year.

Bost said this study is the exact type of research those in the Legislature need to read to stay informed on why Hollis' resolution is needed.

While the resolution was dropped, progress has been made in other sectors. In January, Utah's four major health care systems declared racism a public health crisis and resolved to do better at dismantling systematic racism in health care.

But, if nothing changes based on this new information, Bost said studies like these aren't useful.

"To me, that would be the greatest and most important effect of this study, but if it remains at rhetoric, if it remains that data, then I don't see the value," he said.

Kelly agrees major change is necessary to address systematic racism against Black Americans.

"Unless these issues are really completely eradicated, there's going to be a continuation of that mental trauma that a lot of people of color, especially Black people, are going to have to deal with."

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