issue Summer 2021

Examining the Legacy of Police Encounters

By Yadira Sanchez Olson, Photo by Michael R. Schmidt
From left, Dr. Miller with team members Sophie Leib, Emma Faith and Samuel Vincent.

As inequality is spotlighted by increasing demands to resolve social justice issues, those studying and working in fields of psychology and sociology have an opportunity to analyze how mental health is impacted by experiences of discrimination.

Sophie Leib, CHP ’23, Emma Faith, CHP ’23, and Samuel Vincent, CHP ’25, along with Steven Miller, PhD, associate professor of psychology, collaborated on “Police Interactions, Perceived Respect, and Longitudinal Changes in Depression in African Americans,” a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in February. Its key finding reveals that a “disproportionately high rate of negative encounters with law enforcement” impedes recovery from depression in Black adolescents entering adulthood.

“One study found that mere exposure to police killings of unarmed African American men was predictive of poor mental health outcomes among African American, but not Caucasian participants, suggesting a unique race-based effect,” the article states. “Overall, police interactions appear to be related to poorer outcomes on various mental health indices including depression.”

With the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform in the headlines, I thought this topic was a unique opportunity to merge the assignment and shed some light on the issue.

The work began as an assignment in Dr. Miller’s Longitudinal Models elective class — a course he developed and Ms. Leib and Mx. Faith took in 2020. It required a look at data related to psychological changes over time, collected over several years dating back to the 1990s. Ms. Leib said her interest in the course was driven by current events.

“With the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform in the headlines,” she said, “I thought this topic was a unique opportunity to merge the assignment and shed some light on the issue."

For the published work, the group used data found in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, in which researchers surveyed a representative sample of 20,000 7th- through 12th-graders in 1994 and then followed up with multiple rounds of interviews and physical data collection — including blood-based assays and medication history — as the teens transitioned into adulthood.

Participants were divided into two groups based on racial identity — Black and other. Ms. Leib set out to assess the rate of change in depression from adolescence to adulthood for each group.

“There are differences that occur because not everyone is treated equally in society, and so there are different manifestations of mental health issues — social stressors that influence mental health and psychological processes,” Dr. Miller said. “Because there are these differences, it’s important to have research to understand these and to know the implications.”

After Ms. Leib’s initial research, Mr. Vincent and Mx. Faith came on board to help develop the manuscript. For Mx. Faith, the work is notable because “it shows a disadvantage that shouldn’t be there.”

“This opens a conversation for the need for more research in the African American populations, and for people who have had these experiences to be heard,” Mx. Faith said.

The full text of the study is available at