Addressing the Lack of Proper Maternal Mental Health Care for Black Pregnant and Birthing People

Addressing the Lack of Proper Maternal Mental Health Care for Black Pregnant and Birthing People

* Kendajah Cummings was a communications intern at NHeLP in the summer of 2023.

The United States has long struggled with the highest maternal mortality rate of similarly economically situated countries, and in recent decades that rate has been increasing. Black pregnant and birthing people have been disproportionately impacted, facing mortality rates three times higher than other groups during pregnancy and childbirth. This crisis stems from a variety of factors, including sometimes access to care and substandard care. Due to these circumstances and the many challenges of pregnancy and childbirth, many Black pregnant and birthing people are also at high risk of experiencing adverse maternal mental health outcomes during and after pregnancy.  

A recent report from the Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health concluded that nearly all U.S. states are failing to adequately provide access to maternal mental health care. For Black pregnant and birthing people, the heightened risk of complications during childbirth can have additional ramifications on their mental well-being during the maternal and post-pregnancy periods. Almost forty percent of Black pregnant and birthing people experience maternal mental health symptoms, double the rate compared to other pregnant and birthing people. Racism in the health care system and racial disparities in access to care also contribute to the heightened likelihood of postpartum depression in the Black community. Alarmingly, postpartum deaths are frequently linked to suicide and overdose. One report found that death by suicide may account for up to 20% of postpartum deaths, and findings in one state showed that 38% of pregnancy-associated deaths were from substance use and unintended overdose. The heartbreaking truth is that some of these fatalities could be prevented if individuals had access to adequate maternal mental health care during and after pregnancy. 

The observance of Black Maternal Mental Health Week, from July 19 to 25 each year, is a concerted effort to raise awareness and address the disparities affecting Black maternal mental health. This dedicated week empowers advocates to take proactive measures, unite their efforts, and address the urgent, mental health challenges faced by Black pregnant and birthing people. In particular, advocacy efforts aim at eliminating the barriers that prevent access to therapy, psychiatrists, screenings, and access to proper treatment and support from providers for Black people during and after pregnancy. An organization at the forefront of this advocacy is the Shades of Blue Project, which hosted a series of impactful events during this year’s Black Maternal Mental Health Week to advance this mission. The organization convened a specialized training session designed to better equip doulas, midwives, clinicians, and other providers  with the necessary skills to effectively promote and prioritize better mental health outcomes for Black people during and after pregnancy.. 

The repercussions of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, have been far-reaching, with over a dozen states subsequently banning abortion. This restrictive environment not only impacts access to basic reproductive health care, but also takes a toll on the mental health of countless individuals nationwide. As we address the complex issue of maternal mental health, it becomes crucial to recognize the interconnectedness of various policies and how they can influence maternal mental health outcomes. A comprehensive and compassionate approach to policy making is essential to safeguard maternal mental health and well-being, particularly for those from vulnerable communities.

Black pregnant and birthing people continue to face persistent neglect and disregard for their voiced concerns, resulting in potentially life-threatening complications later on. Their cries for help in the medical context often go ignored, exacerbating the challenges they encounter. It is imperative that health care providers set aside their biases and prioritize providing the best possible care to every patient. Despite making some strides to address the maternal mental health crisis, ongoing racism and resistance to change continue to inhibit progress. It is imperative that we work collectively to create an equitable and compassionate healthcare system that prioritizes the well-being of every mother, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, and community.

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