After Police Kill Unarmed Black People, Black Americans Lose Sleep, Study Finds

New research draws a link between unequal exposure to police violence and lack of sleep for Black adults

People marching down a street and holding Black Lives Matter signs
People march in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2021, after police in Louisville, Kentucky, killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, the year before. Tawanna Gordon, Taylor's cousin, leads the march. Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images

In the months following news of police officers killing unarmed Black people in the United States, Black adults are more likely to experience shorter nights of sleep than before, according to a new study. Researchers did not find a similar trend for white Americans.

The findings, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, “underscore the role of structural racism in shaping racial disparities in sleep health outcomes,” the authors write.

“Society needs to pay attention to the way in which racial trauma really impacts the emotional, mental and physical well-being of Black people and any persons of color—any person that’s marginalized,” Christiana Awosan, the program director for marriage and family therapy at Iona University, who did not contribute to the findings, tells NBC News’ Claretta Bellamy.

The findings reflect “the general human tendency to interpret events—and disparities in events—in ways that apply to you, and your future, and your family’s future,” Atheendar Venkataramani, a co-author of the study and health economist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells the New York Times’ Emily Baumgaertner.

For the new study, the researchers first looked at two nationally representative phone surveys that asked people how much sleep they got. The team analyzed the responses of more than 180,000 Black people and nearly 1.8 million white people, reported between 2013 and 2019.

In general, the researchers found that 46 percent of Black respondents got short nights of sleep—defined as fewer than seven hours—compared to 33 percent of white respondents. Black people also reported getting very short sleep—or less than six hours—about 18 percent of the time, compared to 10 percent for white people.

This indicates that even before factoring in the impact of police killings, Black Americans have a lower baseline for sleep, which has also been noted in past studies. Other research has suggested that longer working hours, shift work, noisier neighborhoods and discrimination contribute to this disparity.

To determine whether unequal exposure to police violence also plays a role, the team incorporated information from Mapping Police Violence, a database that has tracked police killings of unarmed Black people since 2013. The database included 331 instances of these killings during the six-year study period.

For more than one in three survey respondents, police killed an unarmed Black person in their state within the 90 days before their phone interview. Following those killings, the probability of Black people reporting short sleep and very short sleep, respectively, increased by 2.7 percent and 6.5 percent. White people did not report significant changes in sleep.

When the researchers looked at sleep duration following highly public, nationally prominent instances of police killing unarmed Black people anywhere in the U.S., they found a greater shift. The probability of short sleep for Black Americans increased by 4.6 percent, and their likelihood of very short sleep increased by 11.4 percent, compared to the average.

The researchers also examined whether survey respondents reported a change in sleep after other events to address potential bias, writes the New York Times. But after police killings of armed Black people and unarmed white people, they found no significant change in sleep.

The findings serve as a reminder that discrimination threatens “people’s health and livelihood,” Venkataramani tells NBC News.

Not getting enough sleep is tied to a number of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Karen Lincoln, a sociologist studying social determinants of health disparities at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research, tells the New York Times that she would have liked the authors to look at other measures of sleep quality beyond duration that are also linked to stress, such as how often a person wakes up during the night or how long it takes them to fall asleep.

The health impacts of police violence on Black Americans “need to be documented as a critical first step to reduce these harms,” write JAMA Internal Medicine editors Giselle Corbie, Raegan W. Durant and Mitchell H. Katz in an editorial accompanying the study.

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