How exposure to violence worsens health

Samaria Rice’s anxiety fluctuates but seems to increase reliably on her son Tamir’s birthday and the anniversary of the day the 12-year-old was fatally shot by a police officer.

It’s been more than 8 years since police killed Tamir Rice as he stood outside a community center in Cleveland, OH, holding a toy gun.

When Samaria Rice arrived on the scene in 2014. on Nov. 22, her youngest daughter, Tajai, 14, was in a squad car and her 15-year-old son, Tavon, was in handcuffs after running to the scene. She had to choose between staying with them or going to the hospital with Tamir.

He chose the latter. Doctors declared Tamir dead the next day. Her daughter Tasheona, then 18, and Tavo initially reacted with anger and rebellion, and over time, each struggling in their own way, Rice and her children were diagnosed with: PTSD.

The family is still not fully recovered. For years after Tamir’s death, Tajai, who was inseparable from Tamir, would not eat certain foods, such as cheese pizza, cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because they reminded him of his brother.

The children, all now in their 20s, have high blood pressure like their mother. Rice has flashbacks and finds herself “zoning out.”

“We are different people now,” he says. “When my son died, my children started making bad decisions. PTSD is just a hit and everything happens immediately.”

“It comes with a lot depression, anxiety, crying spells and sleepless nights. Your mind is racing,” he says.

It affects entire communities

The damage doesn’t stop with families like Rice’s. A growing body of research shows that the effects of community violence, including aggressive policing, extend beyond victims and their families. It can ripple through entire communities, damaging both mental and physical health.

“Policing is definitely a health issue,” says Andrea Hadley, Ph.D., assistant professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Black and brown people, who tend to have more negative interactions with the police, can experience “vicarious” trauma just knowing that people who look like them could be targeted, Hadley said.

Communities with more active and aggressive policing often face other ills: unemployment, less investment, weakened education systems, and cumulative stress has been shown to increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes, he says.

Adverse childhood experiences, which include dealing with racism and seeing a relative incarcerated, are associated with hepatitis, coronary heart disease, liver disease, substance abuse, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Direct causality is difficult to establish, but scientists are trying to figure out how these factors work together and which are most responsible for poor health outcomes.

Long way: Living with trauma

Siri Alang, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Development at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, examined five pathways linking police brutality and health outcomes among blacks: fatal injuries; emotional and physiological responses in communities; racist public reactions; financial stress; and systemic attenuation.

When a person sees themselves in, say, George Floyd or Eric Garner, or sees their child in Tamir Rice or Michael Brown, the triggers are common, Alang says. A routine traffic stop or sighting by an officer causes knots in the stomach as the body releases cortisol and other hormones designed to prepare for danger, which puts systems into overdrive and causes a “weathering” effect on the body, he says. Negative police encounters can also distort a person’s view of other authorities and institutions, including health care, he says.

“If you’ve had a negative encounter with the police, you’re less likely to get a flu shot, get preventive care, get therapy when you’re stressed,” Alang says. “For you, the system is the system. man is man.”

Rice has experienced it all. The city initially blamed Tamir for the shooting. (The mayor at the time soon apologized for it.) Rice heard people asking why her son’s replica firearm was missing a bright orange safety tip, while others noted that Tamir was big for his age, as if one could to explain how a policeman gets out of his car and opens fire on a 12-year-old child in 2 seconds, he says.

His activism and fight for accountability (no officers were charged, but the city paid his family $6 million) got him fired, as did his therapy sessions to deal with the emotional fallout. He remains frustrated with politicians who pay lip service but do little to solve problems, he says.

“Those are points of anger and trigger points for me to see law enforcement continue to kill without accountability.”

Her three children are now parents themselves, and Rice can’t help but think they would have pursued their dreams for much longer had they not lost their brother to police brutality. As a child, Tavon wanted to be a carpenter or work with machines, while Tasheona wanted to be a neonatal nurse; dreams were put on hold after Tavon spent time in prison and Tasheona became a mother in her late teenage years.

Rice also struggled mightily after Tamir’s death. She and Tajai, who has lost a significant amount of weight since her brother’s murder, lived briefly in a shelter before donations allowed Samaria to find them an apartment, she said.

They are getting help and are doing better now. Tasheona is about to start studying to become a dental assistant, and Rice convinces Tavon to leave Ohio for a fresh start. He plans to attend hairdressing school in Louisville, KY. Tajai has started eating cheese pizza and cereal again, though he hasn’t gone back to PB&J, his mother said.

Today, Rice is busy with the Tamir Rice Foundation, fighting for reform, undoing the ever-smiling young man’s legacy, and meeting other families who have lost loved ones to gun violence.

“You can lose your mind in a situation like this,” he says. “Some of these parents don’t come back through what we’re going through.” That’s why her foundation’s work is so close to her heart.

These types of efforts can make a real difference in a community, says Hadley of Georgetown.

However, he cautions against one-size-fits-all approaches. Communities and police departments vary, as do prescriptions for reform. It may require a number of changes such as:

  • Hire more women and people of color as officers
  • Focusing on known criminals rather than entire communities
  • Using mental health professionals, not the police, where necessary
  • Decriminalization of petty nuisances like loitering
  • Investing in communities (eg, improving public spaces, reducing poverty, providing educational resources, creating jobs, and developing after-school programs)

“We have to take a step back and understand how these different parts of the policing system are contributing to the problems,” Headley says.

“There are things we can do if we choose to do them, but the will must be there.”

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