A Mom on Maternal Mental Health For Women of Color: "Society Holds This False Expectation"

Editor's Note: At POPSUGAR, we recognize that people of many genders and identities can and do experience pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding: not just women. For this particular story, we interviewed an expert who generally referred to people with these experiences as women.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought on a slew of challenges for expecting women and new parents. With so much uncertainty, women must take care of their mental health. Because COVID-19 has disproportionally affected people of color, mothers in these communities need more support than ever, as people of color have less access to mental health services compared to white people. Moreover, when they do receive care, it is likely to be of poorer quality.

In honor of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, we spoke with Shonita Roach, executive director and spokesperson for the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference, to learn why discussing issues that directly affect maternal mental health will positively impact women of color.

"This awareness month is very dear to my heart, as I also lost my son to an accidental death nearly 18 years ago, and I suffered postpartum depression and even contemplated suicide," Shonita told POPSUGAR. "Through extensive therapy, parenting classes, and spiritual healing, I have been able to thrive, create a loving family with my three boys, and serve as an advocate for women and mothers."

How a Lack of Diversity in the Medical Field Is Affecting Black Maternity Health

It's widely known that Black women experience higher chances of maternal health complications than white women in the US, and unfortunately, the lack of diversity in healthcare professions isn't making it any easier for women of color to get the help they need.

"When you talk about mental health or seeing a therapist or even taking medication for the condition, there is a lot of judgment and misnomers," Shonita told POPSUGAR. "So when you take into account the implicit (and explicit) bias against Black women and healthcare, it makes it especially challenging. The lack of multiculturalism in mental healthcare, from a discrepancy in diverse professionals to the lack of community-based services, creates a major barrier that is difficult to overcome."

Additionally, having more nonwhite doulas and medical professionals can have a positive, lasting impact on maternal health across the board. "Studies show that having doulas of diverse backgrounds contributes to reducing maternal and infant mortality rates," she explained. "What I love about doulas is that they are community-based and do a lot more intimate, one-on-one work with women. They fill the gap where the traditional healthcare system lacks."

How COVID-19 Has Negatively Impacted Black Maternal Health

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, and in turn, has extended to Black maternal healthcare. While Shonita is encouraging families to do whatever they can to limit their exposure to the virus, she knows that can be difficult to do when you're pregnant or have just welcomed a child.

"The entire situation is so unfortunate and does not create a conducive environment for a healthy state of mind."

"It's important that communities everywhere practice the safety precautions to reduce the spread of this deadly virus," she explained. "However, those same precautions, such as reducing the use of public transportation unless absolutely necessary, isolating yourself, and staying home puts further strain and stress on expecting and postpartum women."

"Not only that, the acceleration of the need for accessible technology and internet services proves to be paramount during the pandemic," she continued, noting how access to telehealth is a privilege and can be a challenge for marginalized communities. "The pandemic is also very isolating when it comes to prenatal visits: women are having to attend these alone without their partner or support system. Also, your friends and family are no longer allowed to visit the hospitals during and after delivery. The entire situation is so unfortunate and does not create a conducive environment for a healthy state of mind as you transition into motherhood, whether you're a first-time mom or a mother to multiple children."

Black Women's Struggle With Accessing Reproductive Healthcare

We would be remiss if we didn't mention some of the historical and cultural reasons that Black women have struggled to get adequate access to reproductive healthcare in the US.

"Medical experimentation on the bodies of women of color and the oversexualization and degradation of Black breasts — which contributes to negative stigmas on Black breastfeeding — are just two examples of why it negatively impacts the sexual and reproductive health of Black women," she said. "This creates barriers of mistrust, misinformation about our bodies. All of this plays into the current disparities and stigmas surrounding reproductive health in marginalized communities."

"We need to examine how the current system contributes to the disparities in communities."

To challenge this narrative, Shonita believes women of color need to come together and discuss these pertinent issues that are directly affecting their communities. "One of the first steps to making change is starting the conversation, which is why forums like the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference are necessary," she said. "We need to examine how the current system contributes to the disparities in communities, such as looking at where hospitals are located and what types of supportive services are offered, and how do we improve the quality of care afforded to women from diverse backgrounds."

How Can Talking About Infant Loss Be Therapeutic?

For many women, opening up about experiencing pregnancy loss can be incredibly difficult. Often grappling with a myriad of intense feelings, some women may feel judged for what they've gone through.

"I personally understand how talking about these topics can place you in a position of judgment," shared Shonita. "Even to this day, nearly 18 years after the loss of my child and after going through years of therapy, I am faced with negativity and that can be exhausting and detrimental to the mind. The necessity to speak about these traumas is very therapeutic. You need to be able to identify the areas of needs. Talking through it allows you to heal. You don't have to stay stuck in your pain and trauma; you can grow, learn, and thrive. And therapy allows you to do that."

"There's this element of invisibility about child loss that society upholds, and yet, it is so visible to any woman who has experienced it."

Moreover, Shonita knows the importance of taking stigmas head on. After all, the expectations that society places on mothers after they give birth are impossible to live up to, especially when it comes to infant loss.

"Society holds this false expectation for all women and mothers for us to go back to work quickly, lose the baby weight, get adjusted quickly to motherhood, and it doesn't take into consideration how life-changing, physically and mentally, having a baby is, not to mention any sort of loss like a miscarriage," she explained. "We're not allowed to grieve, nonetheless publicly. There's this element of invisibility about child loss that society upholds, and yet, it is so visible to any woman who has experienced it. We're expected to carry this unspoken trauma quietly and privately, but I believe that that is slowly tearing women apart inside."

According to Shonita, there truly isn't a better time for an event like the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference to take place. Now, she's encouraging women to attend the virtual event, which is aimed to help mothers "advocate for herself and others in healthcare, in business, in all areas of life."

"There are a number of reasons that prioritizing mental health is so important," explained Shonita. "In particular, expecting and postpartum women already face additional stress and anxiety, and now that we're living in a global pandemic, women are really struggling. Especially given the current social climate, more people are open to listening to the concerns of marginalized populations and are reaching out and advocating for those who may not have a voice."

Hosted in Madison, WI, the Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference will be broadcasted virtually between Oct. 22 and 24. Women who are interested in attending can buy tickets on the conference's website.