Penn Medicine research found statistically significant decreases in sleep duration among Blacks after exposure to deaths of unarmed Black individuals during police encounters.

Black adults across the United States experience sleep problems following exposure to news about unarmed Black individuals killed by police during police encounters, according to new findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. 

The issue, researchers say, may compound the risk factors that poor sleep already poses for many chronic and mental health conditions, from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers conducted two separate analyses examining changes in sleep duration in the US non-Hispanic Black population before and after exposure to such deaths of unarmed Black individuals, using data on adult respondents in US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and the American Time Use Survey and data on officer-involved killings from the Mapping Police Violence database, a nationally representative sample of 100,000 Black adults. 

“Exposure” was defined by the survey respondent’s county or state of residence, capturing the myriad ways in which these events become known to the public, such as viewing media coverage or participating in community discussions on the topic. The researchers also examined the impacts of incidents of officer-involved killings of unarmed Black individuals covered widely in national media, examining sleep durations for respondents living anywhere in the US surveyed before and after such incidents.  

Worsening sleep duration primarily showed as increases in short sleep (fewer than seven hours a night) and very short sleep (fewer than six hours a night). The findings were specific to exposure to deaths of unarmed Black individuals during interactions with law enforcement, and no adverse impacts on sleep health were found for white respondents. 

In the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 45.9% of Black respondents reported short sleep versus 32.6% of white respondents; the corresponding figures for very short sleep were 18.4% versus 10.4%.

“These findings show that poor sleep health is another unfortunate byproduct of exposure to these tragic occurrences,” says the study’s lead author, Atheendar S. Venkataramani, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medical ethics and health policy, in a release. “Exposure of Black Americans to police violence—which disproportionately affects Black individuals—adversely impacts sleep health of these individuals, a critical keystone that further impacts our mental, physical, and emotional well-being.”

The findings build on previously published work on the impact of structural racism—exposure to neighborhood violence, occupational stratification and shift work, and individual experiences of discrimination—on sleep health.

The researchers also noted that exposure to both lethal and nonlethal police encounters has been linked to poor health outcomes. Researchers suggested that poor sleep could be interrelated with these other health outcomes in several ways. For instance, awareness of the deaths of other Black individuals may diminish expectations about future well-being and longevity, induce hypervigilance, and increase stress including post-traumatic stress disorder, many of which have been associated with poor sleep.

In addition, researchers noted “spillover” consequences of exposure to these killings through prominent news media coverage, suggesting that trauma response efforts may need to be deployed well beyond the communities in which the events occur.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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