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Police Brutality and Mental Health of African Americas


Encountering violence is a traumatic experience that may reside in adverse effects on one’s mental health. Naturally, this effect is especially pronounced if one does not merely encounter violence, but is an intentionally selected victim. However, an experience of being deliberately targeted is not the only way for violence to harm a person’s mental health. Belonging to a social group that is disproportionally affected by violent actions leaves its psychological impact regardless of whether a particular individual encountered this violence personally. This notion applies in full force to the police brutality against African Americans and its effect on their mental health.

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Bor, Venkataramani, Williams, and Tsai (2018) pointed out that police brutality may have spillover effects even on those blacks who are not affected by it directly. This observation raises the question of how police brutality as a social factor rather than personal experience affects the mental health of African Americans in the contemporary United States. An article by Sackett and Dogan (2019) addresses this question in a qualitative study of black teens’ perceptions of their racial identity.

Main Objectives

The research question posed by the authors is broader than the specific effects of police brutality on the mental health of black adolescents. In Sackett and Dogan’s (2019) own words, this question is, “What are black teens’ experiences of their own racial identity?” (p. 176). Yet while the question itself contains no direct association with police brutality, the authors emphasize it as a notable factor shaping African American adolescents’ experiences of blackness.

They specifically allude to the Black Lives Matter movement and mention “systemic issues in the legal and political systems that perpetuate inequality” as a crucial factor in the experiences of young African Americans (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 174). Thus, while the effects of police brutality may not constitute the explicit focus of the research, but permeate the issue nevertheless, of which the authors are aware.

The authors hypothesize that the effect of experiencing blackness – including being disproportionately targeted by police violence – has a twofold impact on the young African Americans’ mental health. On the one hand, upon encountering racial inequality, they may begin to interpret their race as a resilience factor against the “psychological effects of prejudice and oppression” (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 175). On the other hand, the race may become a source of “distress and a sense of conflict within themselves,” as when interpreting police brutality as partially justified by the provocative behavior (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 175). This hypothesis relied on the author’s analysis of the existing scholarly literature ion the subject.

While the literature on the effect of racial oppression on the mental health of African Americans may be relatively plentiful in general, Sackett and Dogan (2019) note that there are few studies covering its effects on young blacks’ mental health as connected to their experience of being black. In their own words, “there has been a dearth of literature exploring black adolescent experiences of racial identity” (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 175).

In a concise literature review, they quote several studies that support their basic notion that racial oppression has a direct impact “on mental health and well-being” of African American adolescents (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 174). They also root the above-mentioned notion of the dualistic response to racial identity, which is central to their hypothesis, in the works of preceding scholars (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 175). Thus, Sackett and Dogan’s (2019) analysis of the scholarly literature allows them to represent their article as filling a gap in the research.

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The authors conducted a qualitative study of black teenagers’ experiences of blackness using the method of photovoice. This method involves participants brainstorming the issue within the realm of their experience and taking and interpreting photographs illustrating this issue, after which the researchers, together with the participants, identify the central recurring themes in the subjects’ interpretation of their experience. This method serves to “give voice to vulnerable populations and to empower individuals through participation” while providing counseling professionals with an insight into the worldview of their potential clients (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 176).

In this case, the topic for brainstorming, depicting in photographs, and interpreting was the experience of blackness as influenced by multiple factors including but not restricted to police brutality (Sackett & Dogan, 2019). The sample of the study consisted of eight African American adolescents from 14 to 17 years old, five females and three males, recruited in two Black churches in the southeastern United States (Sackett & Dogan, 2019). All of the authors’ findings, conclusions, and implications rest on this – rather limited – sample.

The main result of the study was the confirmation of the authors’ hypothesis that experiencing blackness, as influenced by police brutality and other factors, has a twofold impact on the mental health of young African Americans. On the one hand, the participants associated their race with strengths that help in overcoming the effects of oppression, such as being disproportionally targeted by the police. This tendency mainly manifested in depicting strong black role models (Sackett & Dogan, 2019). On the other hand, study subjects also interpreted their experience of race “in counterproductive ways that lead to more distress and internal conflict” (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 184).

This trend manifested in accepting some of the “negative messages society touts about their race,” thus implicitly giving a partial justification for disproportionate targeting (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 183). Additionally, participants demonstrated an acute need for “places they can escape to,” highlighting the sensation of discomfort associated with being black (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 184). Hence, according to Sackett and Dogan (2019), the experience of blackness – including police brutality – impacts the mental health of African Americans by instilling fear and a sense of guilt.

The implications of the authors’ findings relate directly to the practice of counseling for African American clients. First of all, Sackett and Dogan (2019) stress the importance of being aware of the client’s perspectives and worldviews, which becomes a necessary prerequisite of moving forward collaboratively. It is hard to argue with this conclusion, but it is evident enough to border a truism. Apart from that, the authors also urge school counselors to be aware “of the racial identity development process” among the students (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 185).

This implication is essential to avoid the internalization of the dominant culture’s misconceptions of blackness – as when implicitly instilling a sense of guilt for being disproportionally targeted in the acts of police brutality. Thus, Sackett and Dogan (2019) discuss the implications for counseling African American adolescents, including the potential effect of police brutality on their mental health, but their conclusions are not always original.

The authors identify a principal threat to the validity of their study in the size and characteristics of the sample. They acknowledge that religious affiliations of the study participants, all of whom were members of two Black churches in the American southeast, limit the applicability of their findings (Sackett & Dogan, 2019). However, the authors do not question the basic premise behind the selection of their subjects.

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By immediately proceeding with the notion that “the Black church holds great significance and serves as a meeting place for the black community” – based on nothing more than a single reference – they effectively exclude non-affiliated African Americans from the artificially constructed “black community” (Sackett & Dogan, 2019, p. 176). This approach to sampling not merely limits the applicability of the authors’ findings but imposes their own vision of race and racial identity upon the studied population, which is directly opposed to the purpose of studying it through the eyes of black adolescents themselves.


As one can see, Sackett and Dogan (2019) study the effects of experiencing race, including but not limited to police brutality, on African Americans with a focus on counseling, but the article is not free from several notable downsides. Basing their approach on the existing research and using the method of photovoice, the authors conduct a qualitative study to identify and analyze the black teens’ experiences of their racial identity.

The results of the study confirm the initial hypothesis that these effects range from interpreting race as a source of strength to experiencing acute discomfort and even assuming implicit guilt for being discriminated. However, some of the implications for counseling offered by the authors border truisms, and sampling constitutes a significant and partially underestimated threat to the validity of the study.


Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. C. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: A population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet, 392(10144), 302-310.

Sackett, C. R. & Dogan, J. N. (2019). An exploration of black teens’ experiences of their own racial identity through photovoice: Implications for counselors. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 147(3), 172-189.

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