Participants address challenges of maternal health at the National Maternal & Infant Health Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sept. 15. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Participants address challenges of maternal health at the National Maternal & Infant Health Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sept. 15. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

When the joys of becoming a new mother are met with the challenges of post-labor responsibilities, the mental health of a birthing woman can teeter on the line of extreme vulnerability. Maternal mental health issues too often plague Black American mothers at substantially greater rates than whites, yet all women are susceptible to complications of pregnancy and childbirth.  

Maternal mental health conditions appear in various forms including anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, postpartum psychosis, bipolar illness, and in some instances, substance use disorders.  According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, one in five mothers meet the criteria for a mental health disorder during or after pregnancy.  Even more, roughly 40 percent of Black American women who are either pregnant or new mothers in particular, suffer from maternal mental health illnesses, doubling their white counterparts while being half as likely to undergo treatment. 

“Mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety are common during pregnancy and after birth.  Twice as many pregnant Black women with low incomes experience these conditions as white women,” Dr. Huynh-Nhu Le, a professor in the Department of Psychological Services and Brain Sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. told the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder in an interview examining Black maternal mortality rates. “Yet Black women are much less likely than white women to receive mental health screening or treatment during and after pregnancy.”

The lasting effects of maternal mental health complications have proven damaging for the family dynamic of mothers, spouses, and children.  But despite alarming percentages of suffering mothers, the issue still falls short of addressing the high percentage of Black women receiving medical, and social attention for their mental health challenges.  

The apparent gaps between the rate of Black mothers suffering from maternal mental health conditions and seeking treatment is impacted by the stigma they face within their communities.

Various medical professionals emphasize the importance of cultural representation that helps to encourage trustworthy relationships between healthcare providers and their patients. 

During this year’s National Maternal & Infant Health Summit held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C., Mayor Bowser joined a host of medical professionals and media personalities to hear personal motherhood testimonies of professional working women of color.  The sentiments of mothering while facing mental and emotional hardships echoed a recurring theme experienced by many mothers in the audience, and across the District alike. 

Popular news anchor Jeannette Reyes from Fox 5 DC stressed the importance of a reliable support team to help relieve and guide mothers in balancing their mental and physical health post-labor. 

“My biggest lesson learned for me is that everybody’s journey is different.  Make sure that if the support system doesn’t come to you, then you go find it.  I was fortunate that I had people come to me, but getting connected with groups has been absolutely [beneficial] for me,” Reyes said.  

District residents have several local and national resources to choose from when seeking medical services and guidance for family planning needs.  Organizations similar to March of Dimes, and Healthy Steps DC assist mothers throughout the DC area by spreading awareness of the dire importance of prenatal care, and mental health support for Black mothers in need.

“When provided with appropriate care and support, we see decreased depression, increased social support, and increased self-efficacy,” said Kimberly Brooks, program lead at Healthy Steps DC.

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