News Release

Losing sleep over killings of unarmed Black individuals by police

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

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

PHILADELPHIA – 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 today in JAMA Internal Medicine from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. The issue, researchers said, 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 U.S. non-Hispanic Black population before and after exposure to such deaths of unarmed Black individuals, using data on adult respondents in U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS) and the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) 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 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. In the BRFSS, 45.9 percent of Black respondents reported short sleep versus 32.6 percent of white respondents; the corresponding figures for very short sleep were 18.4 percent versus 10.4 percent.

“These findings show that poor sleep health is another unfortunate byproduct of exposure to these tragic occurrences,” said the study’s lead author, Atheendar S. Venkataramani, MD, PhD, an associate professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. “Exposure of Black Americans to police violence—which disproportionately effects 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 have 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 increased stress including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 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 (1R01MD014023-01A1).


Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.

The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.



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