Killings of unarmed Black people and racial disparities in sleep health

Penn Medicine research finds that Black adults across the U.S. suffer from sleep problems following exposure to news about unarmed Black individuals killed by police during police encounters.

Black adults across the United States suffer from 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 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.

An African American person in bed, unable to sleep.
Image: iStock/demaerre

Researchers conducted two separate analyses examining changes in sleep duration in the U.S. non-Hispanic Black population before and after exposure to such deaths of unarmed Black individuals. “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 U.S. 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.

“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, an associate professor of medical ethics and health policy. “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 findings on the impact of structural racism—exposure to neighborhood violence, occupational stratification and shift work, and individual experiences of discrimination—on sleep health.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.