Black Women and Postpartum Depression

How to break through the stereotypes and stigma to get help

Posted May 17, 2016

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

By Gloria Malone

Up to 20 percent of women develop a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or (rarely) psychosis, either during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth. For Black women, the risk is almost twice that. And yet, fewer Black women get help for these very common and treatable conditions. Researchers aren't entirely clear on the reasons for these statistics, but one obstacle to treatment is stigma around mental health issues, specifically the stereotype of the Black "superwoman."

As Black women, we are socialized and raised with the goal of being strong women. Part of achieving this can mean associating very human emotions and reactions (like sadness and crying) with "weakness" and "failure." But we don't have to accept that, and we don't have to suffer in silence.

Here are eight ways to break through this stereotype and get help.

Know that whatever you are feeling is OK. Almost all women experience the baby blues – a period of sadness, weepiness, or general emotional upheaval that lasts for two or three weeks after delivery. Some women develop a PMAD, which is actually one of the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Allow yourself to feel whatever range of emotions you are experiencing. They all make sense when you are going through a life change as big as this one. 

Ask the Internet the questions you are afraid to ask out loud. Questions like, "What is depression? Do Black woman experience depression? What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety and or depression?" become a bit less taboo when you research them anonymously in the safety of your own space. Using the Internet to learn about mental health and mental health disorders can help you uncover answers, be more informed and, in turn, feel more empowered when you talk about your emotional health with others. Sources of reliable and accurate information include Postpartum Progress, The Postpartum Stress CenterPostpartum Support International, and the Seleni Institute

Find community online. Social media is a great way to connect with other pregnant and parenting Black women on a more personal level, while still maintaining whatever level of privacy you are comfortable with. Many Black women use personal blogs, Facebook pages, online magazines, and even conversational platforms like Twitter to connect with others in the same situation. When you read about another Black mother's experience with a PMAD, you will feel less alone and begin to realize that you are not "crazy." And you can use these resources to develop a plan to speak to your medical providers, family, friends, and community leaders from a place of empowerment.

Find support among family and friends. Stereotypes can make speaking with family and friends more challenging than we would like. Start with the people in your life you think will be most receptive to you speaking openly and honestly. You may be surprised to learn that they struggled too and even feel like you can ask them to help you manage your stress and anxiety.

Find supportive medical professionals. One of the most immediate and effective ways to feel better is to talk to a medical professional who can get you the help you need. You may need to request a referral to a mental and emotional health professional from your primary care physician. You can also find mental health professionals through the search features on Psychology Today and Black Women Birthing Justice.

Seek community where you are comfortable. Doula and midwife groups run by Black women can feel like a safer space to have open and honest conversations. These groups often have connections with resources and services in your community that can also help. Black Women Birthing Justice's website (which features Black doula search options), Birthing Project USA, and the International Center for Traditional Childbearing are great places to start.

If you are afraid to say anything, ask for your "friend." If the idea of saying you are struggling is keeping you from saying anything, then try the old line about asking for a "friend." Instead of saying that you feel really sad or are in constant pain since getting pregnant or giving birth, tell your loved one, friend, provider you have a friend in that situation and ask what she should do to get help. This strategy can also be a great way to gauge how those in your community will react to these topics of conversation.

Don't stop until you find help. You may follow my advice and still run into friends who don't believe you, doctors who tell you that you will feel better soon, or a partner who thinks you just need to be "stronger." Don't listen to them. Listen to yourself. You know how you feel. And now you know that how you feel is not uncommon and that, with appropriate treatment, you can feel better. You owe it to yourself and to your child to get there. So don't let anyone stand in your way. That's what a strong Black woman would do.