By Christine Michel Carter| August 16, 2019
"Moms of color have an increased risk of experiencing PPD and related disorders than women in other ethnic groups, but fear is keeping them from getting the treatment they need. Here’s why, and how Black families can get the right mental health support."
"During her first year as a mom, Karen Flores, then 31 years old, was afraid she was not emotionally stable enough to take care of her daughter. On the particularly hard days, Flores would take a walk with her daughter on the beach. “Out of nowhere, this bizarre thought came to my mind ‘push the stroller over the rocks and see what happens,’” she wrote on the site Maternal Mental Health Now. “I was paralyzed by the thought but forced myself to keep on walking while wondering where it had come from—'Oh, My God, am I crazy?' I wondered.”
Flores, now 50, was not crazy. She was suffering from postpartum depression, a condition that affects up to one in seven women, according to the American Psychological Association. Flores didn’t immediately seek out help. “I was extremely anxious and ashamed thinking that I was losing my mind and that my baby would be taken from me,” she says. “I tried praying and did a lot of cardio.” Before her daughter’s second birthday, she began working with a therapist to manage the symptoms of her depression.
Black women like Flores are less likely to get help for postpartum mental health issues compared to both white women and Latinas, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services. Part of this hesitation is caused by fear—these women fear they will be considered unfit and have their children taken away from them by Child Protective Services. These fears are not unwarranted since one in nine Black children will spend time in foster care by the time they're 18, according to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. This is the second-highest risk racial/ethnic group to end up in the foster care system behind Native American children.
“There’s a lack of trust of medical practitioners within the Black mom community nationwide,” explains Shivonne Odom, LCPC, LPC, founder of Akoma Counseling Concepts, LLC, in Silver Spring, Maryland, who specializes in maternal mental health counseling for mothers with perinatal disorders. “Many medical practitioners are not trained to refer or treat perinatal mood disorders so when they hear patients report typical symptoms of postpartum depression, practitioners mistake the severity of the symptoms for abuse.” Odom, who is Black herself, adds that many practitioners do not recognize a difference in how perinatal mood disorders present among ethnic groups. “This leads to improper treatment or poor rapport between practitioner and client,” she says.
Postpartum depression, anxiety, and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders can affect any mother and can manifest up to one year after delivery. However, there are cultural nuances during pregnancy, labor, and delivery that can increase the risks of experiencing PPD for Black mothers. Statistics show that Black women are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than white women. From 2011 to 2015, there were 42.8 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black non-Hispanic women—a higher ratio than any other ethnic group. “These statistics along with birth trauma and untreated mental health issues prior to and during pregnancy may lead to postpartum depression,” Odom says.
Suffering in silence
Odom says she often sees the same themes preventing Black mothers from seeking mental health therapy. First, there’s the fear of losing control, independence, respect from others, or mental sanity. “Sometimes holding in this fear leads to a manifestation of irrational thoughts—'I’m not a good mom,’ ‘I feel empty,’ ‘I’m not emotionally connecting to my baby,’” she says. “The belief that something is wrong, which must mean I’m doing something wrong and I’m a bad mom is an extension of these irrational thoughts.”
Then she often hears that these women would prefer to seek help from their friends, family, and church rather than a mental health professional. “There’s definitely a cultural stigma discouraging mental health counseling in the Black community,” Odom explains. “Some believe that if you go to therapy you have to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital or will be required to take addictive prescription medications. Some people’s religious beliefs also shape their views on mental health and can impact their help-seeking behaviors.” There’s also concern passed down from generation to generation that mental health practitioners are suspicious of Black mothers."