Being a victim of police violence is tied to a fourfold higher risk of suicide attempts for those who reported physical assault and a greater than tenfold higher risk for those who reported assault with a weapon or sexual victimization, U.S. researchers say.
“In the recent conversations about police violence, the focus has been on police killings or interactions that have resulted in death,” said lead study author Jordan DeVylder of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
“That makes sense because those are the most impactful,” he told Reuters Health. “But if there are more than 1,000 incidents per year resulting in death, the less severe but still meaningful cases involving mental health effects have a far wider spread.”
In November 2016, the American Public Health Association urged increased research into the effects of law enforcement violence (bit.ly/2qLcSLY), the study team writes in the Journal of Urban Health
In response, DeVylder and colleagues conducted the Survey of Police-Public Encounters among 1,615 adults in four U.S. cities – Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. – who were selected to be representative of the general population.
The researchers collected information about participants’ gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, income, involvement in crime, past intimate partner and sexual victimization exposure and lifetime history of mental illness.
In addition, participants were asked about experiences of violence from law enforcement officers in any of five categories. For example, “has a police officer ever hit, punched, kicked, dragged, beat, or otherwise used physical force against you?” and “has a police officer ever used a gun, baton, taser, or other weapon against you?” The researchers also asked about “forced inappropriate sexual contact,” non-physical aggression like threatening, intimidating or using slurs, and about abusive neglect: “have you ever called or summoned the police for assistance and the police either did not respond, responded too late, or responded inappropriately?
Participants were also asked if they had either thought about or attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
A total of 172 survey participants reported some type of police victimization and researchers found that these experiences were associated with higher odds of having made a suicide attempt, but not with suicidal thoughts. The risk was especially elevated when it was related to experiencing physical or sexual violence at the hands of police.
“What stuck out to us was the strength of the association,” DeVylder said. “Doubling or tripling the risk is considered strong, so four times or ten times the odds is a really powerful indicator.”
The research team is less clear about the direction of cause and effect, he added. Either the experience of victimization creates a psychological impact that leads to suicide attempts, or suicide attempts draw more police attention through emergency calls, which increases police encounters in general and can lead to negative circumstances.
It’s also possible that factors like various forms of social and economic adversity are common among people who are more likely to contemplate suicide and more likely to be exposed to police violence, the authors note. And thus the experience of victimization could contribute to the transition from suicidal thoughts to action.
DeVylder and colleagues plan to conduct a long-term study to understand these causality issues. Until that link is better researched, mental health resources can still fold the information into suicide prevention efforts, he said. The study team advocates suicide risk screening and assessing for police victimization, especially in cities.
“I would actually like to see these screens used not only by mental health service providers but also expanded to primary care settings, particularly in neighborhoods and communities where police contact is known or expected to be prevalent,” said Amanda Geller, a sociology researcher at New York University who wasn’t involved in the research.
The current study also didn’t include data about arrest history, incarceration history or childhood victimization exposure, which could influence the associations found, Geller noted.
“There’s a lot that remains to be learned about whether the health challenges we observe are direct effects of police contact or linked by some other mechanism,” Geller told Reuters Health by email. “But by documenting such a strong and significant association between police victimization and suicide attempts, they raise a flag that the consequences could be dire.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2rvMRUR Journal of Urban Health, online May 22, 2017.