Word to the Wise: Black Maternal Mental Health Matters.

July 13, 2021

Time was playing tricks on her as she paced the floor. She couldn’t help looking at her watch every few seconds. It was only 10 minutes past when her son said he would return home, but it seemed like a century. Like other Black mothers, from the moment he stepped out the door of their home, she didn’t know if he would be stopped by the police and treated as a suspected criminal. She did not know whether she would see him come home again.

Mothers and grandmothers all worry about their children and grandchildren. Black mothers and mothers of color carry an extra burden of worry and stress. The daily reality of sexism and racism for Black pregnant people is often unaddressed by healthcare providers. Getting support is particularly difficult because the path to mental health care is littered with barriers.

First, there is the overall societal stigma surrounding mental illness. Finding the proper treatment is a challenge. The expense and lack of providers who understand Black women’s unique stresses put appropriate treatment out of reach for many.

Stress negatively impacts pregnancy. Lower birth weight and earlier delivery are among the consequences of the stress experienced by Black mothers. The CDC finds that even college-educated Black women suffer more severe pregnancy-related complications than white women who haven’t graduated from high school. Black pregnant people have a higher risk of miscarriage compared to their White sisters. They also are three to four times as likely as whites to die from pregnancy or childbirth complications.

Overall, many pregnant, laboring, and postpartum Black people experience mistreatment. Their care may include behaviors that range from disrespectful to dangerous. Direct experience or simply knowledge of birth trauma and abuse may inhibit a Black pregnant person from seeking help when something is wrong.

Black people often distrust medical professionals because of the many instances when physicians used African Americans as test subjects in unethical experiments. One involves the foundation of the field of gynecology. Credited as the “father of modern gynecology, James Marion Sims performed multiple procedures without anesthesia on enslaved women during the 19th century. He caused untold suffering by operating under the racist notion that Black people did not feel pain. This view is still held by too many medical providers today.

Mothers and grandmothers will never stop caring about their children and grandchildren, even when all are “officially” grownups. At the same time, we recognize that love makes a family. Love listens deeply to those who have been the targets of racism and misogyny and seeks to heal those wounds. Love aims to decrease the stigma against mental health care. Mothers and grandmothers can speak from their life experiences. They can advocate for culture-sensitive mental health care. They can talk about the need to build the villages of trust, strength, and hope to support all people creating families today.

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