Fun fact before we get rolling, every US president since 1976 has proclaimed February to be Black History Month. Pretty neat huh?
Here's another fact, more than 16 of every 1,000 babies born in central Hillsborough County die before their first birthday. One more fact, there are 87 Federal Healthy Start programs nationwide, in areas deemed extreme high risk for maternal/infant mortality and Tampa Bay has TWO!
How does all of this connect to maternal mental health and the health of black women? I asked my colleague Gaetane Jospeh-Rhodd to help me connect the dots and better understand the maternal mental health crisis in the black community.
Gaetane is very open about her struggle with maternal mental health, and has recently published her own account on her blog at http://www.seedsofmommysoul.net.
"My struggle with maternal mental health was very difficult because my family would repeatedly express how I must keep it together for them. I had to always be strong, so discussing mental health was not welcomed. Feeling overwhelmed? Go on a weekend getaway. Feeling like life is getting too hard? Go take a nap. The constant redirection of my cries made it difficult to seek help. Once I knew that my overall life would change for the worse, I knew that I had to get help in order to continue to live. To feel like life is worth living."
The concept of deny, delay and distract is nothing new for mothers experiencing health concerns. I asked Gaetane about the existence of a stigma surrounding mental health. Her response seems relatable to many.
"In my Black community mental health is not discussed much. When we discuss mental health there is always the conatation that so and so went "crazy" and had to go away. In the Black community we do not seek mental health care because only non functioning adults need that help. If you're able to still go to work, take care of your family, etc. then why can't constant prayer fix this? As a black woman you are strong. You are able to carry the weight of everyone's burdens on your shoulders while being as graceful as possible. This is what I also call the Strong Black Woman Syndrome. You can overcome all of this because your mother, aunts, and grandmothers raised a strong Black woman. By seeking mental health, there must be something wrong with you and family can't help. This stigma needs to be addressed and dissected."
Addressed and dissected. Yes. It needs to be broken down, crumbled like the Berlin wall. Recent studies have shown that while Black and Hispanic mothers are at higher risk for postpartum distress, only a small percentage seek treatment. Gaetane shared some of the barriers women of color face in reaching out and some of the origin.
"To truly get a better understanding of the depths of these barriers would have to date back to slavery. The aspect of women having to be separated from their families, rape, and dehumanization. Historically, we have to continue to keep pushing through when we have to continue being that glue for our loved ones. Being able to face constant social-economical battles is persistent so who has time to reach out because life is so hard? We have our families to care for and down that ladder our well being sits and patiently waits for acknowledgment."
Our well being sits and waits. But I'm not a very patient person and quite frankly I'm tired of moms being forced to push through and struggle alone. When I asked Gaetane what we could do to reduce the stigma. Again, she nailed it.
"Maternal mental health advocates should be ready to understand that culture, sexual abuse, disparities, racisim, sexism, and economics play major roles in maternal health. By having other women of color as advocates could be a great start for other advocates to get a better understanding of the depths of the stigmas of mental health in the Black community."
I cannot thank Gaetane enough for being patient enough to help me understand more so that I can pass this on to you reading this.
So if you're reading this, now is the time for you to get into action. We need you. Your mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives need you! If you want to save babies, start by saving their mothers. All the mothers.
Holding the umbrella,
*we acknowledge that this is the truths of one Black mother and not representative for all Black mothers. Though we have a hunch many experiences may be similar.
Each walk is different, but we walk together, and that makes all the