Black women care for everyone’s physical, spiritual and mental health and well-being as devoted wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. But who helps them endure and overcome the higher risks of mental health challenges like perinatal (during and immediately after childbirth) mood and anxiety disorders they face compared to White women?
Close to 40 percent of Black mothers will suffer from postpartum depression, more than double the rate for the general population, according to a recent study cited by creators of Black Maternal Mental Health Week. From high rates of postpartum suicide and overdose deaths, various factors contribute to their maternal mortality crisis, and Black moms are less likely to receive treatment, according to the National Perinatal Association.
Shades of Blue Project, a Houston-based non-profit dedicated to helping women of color before, during and after childbirth with community resources, mental health advocacy, treatment and support, with the support of Moms Rising, a social justice welfare organization, launched the July 19-25 Black Maternal Mental Health Week events to curb the challenges of Black women who are more likely to experience traumatic births and the mental health consequences that follow.
“When we say Black maternal mental health, folks out here, get it. We’re saying this because this is the most effected population, but not because we don’t care about other populations. It’s because what is happening to us will certainly happen to them, and we just really want to stop this. I mean, it’s very unnecessary,” stated Kay Matthews, executive director of Shades of Blue Project.
The event included an in-person training session, a two-day summit, a community awards brunch, a walk and family fun day.
Ms. Matthews created the initiative out of her own birthing experience. Her daughter was stillborn, and she didn’t receive critical resources she felt she should have gotten, she said. She also felt like she didn’t have a postpartum period.
“Everything was centered on the fact that I lost my baby and not me. And so, I struggled mentally for I felt like an eternity. I also realized in that timeframe that I was going to have to save myself, because the correlation between maternal mental health and infant loss just wasn’t there,” stated Ms. Matthews.
She recognized that Black mothers experience so much more than grieving the loss of their children at birth, so she set out to help other women obtain the support, care, and resources they need to get into a recovery state of mind.
Part of the effort to ensure Black mothers get resources they need and want is the State of Black Maternal Mental Health Roundtable discussion, which concluded the week-long event, designed to call attention to the disorders and other shameful disparities.
Advocates also rallied around a resolution sponsored by Lisa Blunt, U.S. representative for Delaware’s at-large congressional district, to raise public awareness and understanding around maternal mental health conditions and their disproportionate impact on Black birthing people and families; recognize the need for culturally congruent treatment for maternal mental health conditions.
Postpartum depression is a huge issue, but it isn’t the only issue that Black mothers face after childbirth, tshe said. Unfortunately, the thought process through today is that women simply need to get to their six weeks checkup and after that remain diligent about keeping their babies’ appointments, but what about them? she asked.
According to Ms. Matthews, doctors contribute to this thought pattern because they fail to explain to Black mothers that they need to follow up, that their continuum of care must happen in their postpartum period, she continued.
Pay attention to Black mothers, and not so much to data, because the community is the data, the research, advocates say. And what they provide by word of mouth are the solutions to problems directly affecting them, such as funding, but that are ofttimes not implemented.
“The solutions are out there. We just keep talking about the problem, I think, in hopes that it’ll go away, like if we talk about it enough, it’ll kind of work itself out. And it’s not, it’s getting worse, particularly for Black and Brown communities, versus other communities,” stated Ms. Matthews.
What people fail to realize is that Black mothers often can’t take off from work because if they do that could mean missed rent payments, not enough money for food, or even necessities for their children, advocates say. And that’s where they feel the House Resolution by Rep. Blunt may help to change the mental health trajectory for many Black mothers.
“It’s going to acknowledge what we have been saying, which is that we are in a maternal mental health crisis and we have been there,” said Ms. Matthews.
“It’s like in the world, you can’t have more than one crisis at one time. And when you put Black in front of it, then it’s like, oh, no, no, ya’ll have a Black maternal health crisis. That’s enough, now with that word. … That’s how it feels,” she told The Final Call.
Advocates say addressing Black maternal mental health is critical across all ages. But from her perspective, if women don’t enter care with great mental health, they’re more than likely to have challenges in the postpartum period, said JayVon Muhammad, a certified professional midwife and founder of Urban Midwifery, Inc.
When she says good mental wellness, she means being in a great relationship, having opportunities to plan, having one’s needs like food, clothing and shelter met, but most importantly, love.
“You’re bringing another life onto the planet. And sometimes we have this void in us, because we don’t have a partner that’s with us, so all of these things cause us to be a little bit insecure, sometimes embarrassed,” stated Ms. Muhammad.
She acknowledged, sometimes even if they aren’t pregnant, Black women are stressed due to a lack of housing, access to food, a good job or any money or resources to sustain themselves, which causes an imbalance. “So when you add in pregnancy and the need to think about someone else, and to think about the future, and then also think about the hormonal shifts that happen when you are pregnant, this just magnifies whatever it is that you’re addressing when you come in,” Ms. Muhammad told The Final Call.
In her over 20 years of experience, which has included heading federally funded birthing centers in San Francisco, never has she seen sadness and depression in young Black and Indigenous expecting mothers to the point of suicide, she said.
“We’re seeing so many young women come in with chemical imbalances in the brain. It’s like we’re doing something to young people to deplete their serotonin,” she said. Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body and plays a key role in such body functions as mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“There’s no joy! It’s like there’s no fulfillment in the relationships that we’re having and the planning that we’re having,” stated Ms. Muhammad.
“More girls than I’ve ever seen, and young women, are just coming into care either depressed or restating something they’ve been told by another clinician, like ‘I have anxiety, so I’m on this medicine.’ Well, who told you that,” she continued.
Whether it’s improper foods, messaging in social media, or messages in society that is ripping joy out of young people, clinical practice is showing the problem is getting worse not better, according to Ms. Muhammad. She shared that when she got word that a young Black woman in her mid-20s was admitted for attempted suicide, sadly, she wasn’t shocked.
“I’ve been a midwife for 20 years, and I’ve never seen it this way. Just in the numbers of people who are depressed.” Currently she leads a mental health program called Embrace in the San Francisco Bay Area. Part of their work in conjunction with a Black perinatal program and partnership with the University of California at San Francisco is to help young people think through pregnancy and parenting.
Ms. Muhammad advises young moms to find a therapist early in their pregnancies, even if they don’t feel they have a mental challenge. A great therapist is like a life coach, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to someone about what life being pregnant or as a new mom will look like, she encouraged.
Unfortunately, a great challenge to improving mental health is that society has become so anti-woman, and Black women aren’t being trained and encouraged to create an environment that will make them a happy woman, wife, and mother, opined Ms. Muhammad.
“It’s almost like it’s taboo. You are crazy. Something’s wrong with you, if you desire that, so to me, that’s the essence of where the mental health challenge is going. And you can’t have an expectation on young women or young men today. We would rather argue abortion than argue improving the conditions that cause women to have to have an abortion,” she added.