Abstract: Police Contact, Mental Health, and Health Disparities Among Urban Teens (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Police Contact, Mental Health, and Health Disparities Among Urban Teens

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 14, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Amanda Geller, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor, New York University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose: Police contact is increasingly recognized as a driver of racial and socioeconomic inequality. Particularly when encounters are aggressively carried out, police contact is also a threat to individual and community health. However, much remains to be learned, particularly about how police contact and its consequences might be experienced by youth. Childhood and adolescence are unique developmental periods in which both positive and negative experiences can shape development and long-term trajectories, making the experiences of young people with the police critical to understand. 

Police contact has shifted substantially over 25 years to a “proactive” model, in which police engage citizens with aggressive investigative stops and arrests at low levels of suspicion. Our earlier understanding of how young people experience the police may therefore no longer apply. This paper uses data from the first national population-based survey to collect contemporary data on police contact and child and adolescent health, and assesses the implications of police contact for adolescent mental health and health disparities.

Methods: I used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based birth cohort study of families with children born between 1998 and 2000 in large American cities. Parents were interviewed at the time of the “focal child’s” birth and in five follow-up interviews, including most recently, around the time of their 15thbirthday (2014-2017). At this interview, the focal teens were also interviewed and self-reported information about their experiences with the police and several mental health conditions. 

I examined three indicators of adolescent mental health, all self-reported: Anxiety (based on the Brief Symptom Inventory, describing feelings “in the past 4 weeks”), Depression (based on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, describing feelings “in the past week”), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (based on the Impact of Event Scale – Revised, asked of teens personally experiencing police contact, based on their reactions to the stop that “stands out most in [their] mind). N=3,036 for analyses of anxiety and depression, =784 for analyses of PTSD.

Using longitudinal regression, I modeled mental health differences between teens reporting personal police contact, vicarious contact (witnessing a stop or knowing someone stopped), and no contact, as well as racial differences in observed mental health associations.

Results: Preliminary results found that personal experiences with the police were associated with more symptoms in all three mental health indicators. Race-specific regressions indicated that the association between police experience and PTSD was observed among black, white, and Hispanic teens, while associations with depression and anxiety were concentrated among black teens. 

Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that police contact operates as a driver of adverse mental health among contemporary youth, and threatens to exacerbate health disparities across the life course. Physicians and social workers working with adolescents in aggressively policed communities would benefit from understanding the teens’ experiences with the police and consequences of these experiences. More research is needed to understand the observed differential associations by race.