The police killing of George Floyd took an unprecedented toll on the emotional and mental health of Black Americans, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by LDI Senior Fellow Sharath Guntuku and colleagues at Penn and Stanford.

While their findings come as no surprise, it highlights how racism “gets under the skin,” affecting the health and outlook of the Black population. It also points out the critical need to increase the physical and mental health resources available to Black communities already hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.

The authors used nationally representative Gallup surveys to assess emotional changes reported in the week after the killing, which was captured on video and prompted widespread protests. They also assessed changes to mental health as reported in the U.S. Census weekly household survey.

Across the U.S. population, feelings of anger and sadness increased dramatically in the week after George Floyd’s death. Roughly 38% said they experienced anger, up more than 50% from the previous four weeks. Sadness increased about a third, with 38% reporting feelings of loss, despair, and grief. This is against the backdrop of elevated levels of anger and sadness in 2020 due to COVID-19.

But for Black Americans, the impact was even greater. Nearly half reported feelings of anger and sadness after Floyd’s death, doubling the levels reported in the prior weeks.

These negative emotions had important implications for mental health as well. Using Census data, the authors found that nearly 30% of all Black respondents would have screened positive for depression in the week after Floyd’s death, up 3.2 percentage points from the prior weeks. In contrast, positive screens for depression rose 1.2 percentage points in white respondents. The authors note that the disproportionate impact on Black people meant that an additional 900,000 Black individuals would screen positive for depression. They estimate that these positive screens would be associated with about 2.7 to 6.3 million additional mentally unhealthy days among Black Americans.

While this study looked at emotional and mental health effects in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the killing of unarmed Black men by police occurs with chilling regularity. The findings of this study echo those of a 2018 study by Jacob Bor, Atheendar Venkataramani, and colleagues, which looked at the spillover effects of police killings of unarmed Black men and their effects on the mental health of Black Americans. In that study of more than 300 police killings, the authors found a significant effect on the Black population, accounting for about 55 million excess days per year in poor mental health.

Although the extent of this psychological distress is enormous, it is only a glimpse into the negative downstream effects of police killings on physical health, social and professional life, family, and personal wealth. As the authors note, police killings represent a dynamic shock to the psychological well-being of Black Americans.  It is collective trauma produced by the persistent reality of systemic racism in the U.S.

The study, The Emotional and Mental Health Impact of the Murder of George Floyd on the US Population, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 28, 2021.  Authors include Johannes C. Eichstaedt, Garrick T. Sherman, Salvatore Giorgi, Steven O. Roberts, Megan E. Reynolds, Lyle H. Ungar, and Sharath Chandra Guntuku.


Janet Weiner

Janet Weiner, PhD, MPH

Co-Director for Health Policy, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics

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