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Why Postpartum Mood Disorders Are Overlooked in Mothers of Color

mom with postpartum depression

The phrase “she’s in a bad mood,” is severely harmful to mothers of color who are – actually – experiencing a postpartum mood disorder or struggling silently with their mental health.

Other phrases also commonly heard include: “Her nerves are bad.” “She had a nervous breakdown.” “She’s just crazy.” “She’s in a bad mood.”

These, for lack of a better word, “catchphrases” are how I grew up hearing overwhelmed, overworked, and misdiagnosed mothers described when members of my community either lacked the proper knowledge or couldn’t bear to carry the stigma-induced weight of calling it exactly what it was: an undiagnosed postpartum mood disorder.

mom holding baby

But the truth of the matter is that sometimes the early days of motherhood or postpartum don’t feel as glorious as the world pretends they do.

Even more agonizing is the harsh reality that mothers of color are more likely to develop postpartum mood disorders than those who are not. Astonishing, isn’t it?

And painfully enough, sometimes it’s the pressure from the people who look the most like us that prevents us from getting the help we need.

My story: postpartum depression as a Black woman

Growing up Black, broke, and blue-collar delivered one obvious message to me from the early years. No matter how difficult the day or how gloomy the prognosis was, I had to be strong.

And every Black woman that I encountered–young, old, and somewhere in between, wore that message as if it were a badge of honor. For if you were not a strong, Black woman, you could only be one other thing: weak. And in my culture, I don’t know too many labels that feel worse than that.

Sadly, the need to feel strong amidst all storms followed me into motherhood. But it was there that I realized that pretending to be strong when I was suffering greatly was causing my young family and me more harm than good.

After the birth of my third child, I blindly stumbled through Postpartum Depression, hating myself for feeling weak and having no clue how to not be strong. Because strength, whatever that actually meant, was all I knew.

But this time, faking it until I made it just wasn’t doing the trick. And hearing other Black mothers in my community, both friends and family, turn their noses and utter “what’s wrong with her?!” or insisting that I “just be strong” broke me down even more than I already was.

I was harboring a shameful secret that I feared would be a first-class ticket out of the culture if “they” ever found out. But I wasn’t the only one. And my culture isn’t either.

mom with postpartum depression

Postpartum depression and minority cultures

In an article published on CBC, South Asian writer and mother Yumna Siddiqui-Khan recalls her response when she told her mother that she had Postpartum Depression.

“We never had that in our day. It must be a modern thing”, she said as she patiently listened then responded, seemingly unbothered by her daughter’s guilty confession.

This response prompted Yumna to do a bit of research amongst her friends. Her mother was educated, and although she grew up in a traditional Pakistani family, she didn’t understand how she seemed to be completely unaware of the illness. Her research ultimately revealed that stigma related to mental health in South Asian cultures was the culprit.

A closer look at PMAD rates

According to an article in the Women’s Health Journal, “rates of Perinatal Depression (PND) are substantially higher among immigrant and U.S.-born Latinas living in the United States at 11% to 50%”.

The article further states that “many pregnant women with mental health concerns fear being perceived as “crazy” and worry about losing their child should they disclose depressive symptoms to health care professionals (Nadeem et al., 2007). The fear of losing their child is exacerbated by poverty and immigration status (Chaudron et al., 2005).

Among Latinas, concerns about stigma might be further complicated by the practice of Marianismo — the notion that a mother must put her children and family first and sacrifice herself for the well-being of her family — which has been shown to limit treatment-seeking behaviors (Callister et al., 2011Sirulnik et al., 2014).”

mom holding baby with hand on head

It’s not only postpartum depression

If mothers of color are afraid to speak up when they’re experiencing something as common as Postpartum Depression, what happens when they’re experiencing something much worse?

While several postpartum mood disorders fall under the “Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders” umbrella, Postpartum Psychosis is the most severe of them all. Rare, usually requiring hospitalization and often misdiagnosed, mothers experiencing this illness exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder– hallucinations, delusions, and mania, to name a few.

According to an article in Very Well Mind, “around 0.1-0.2% (that’s one or two of one thousand women) will develop postpartum psychosis”.

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mom in eye mask sleeping on the bed

One or two of one thousand women may not seem like a whole lot but consider this: there were approximately 3.6 million births in the U.S. in 2020, according to U.S. News and World Report. This equates to roughly 3,600-7,200 mothers who may experience Postpartum Psychosis.

While mothers of color are more likely to develop postpartum mood disorders, the lack of studies on these disorders leaves me to wonder just how prevalent Postpartum Psychosis – diagnosed or not – is in these communities.

asian baby with headband

My thoughts on this societal short-falling

But if we don’t or believe that we can’t speak up, I fear that we will never know just how much our mothers of color may be suffering.

I dare not speak for all mothers of color. And I’m no medical or mental health professional.

But I am a mother of color who knows what it feels like to not exactly have the words to explain what I’m feeling. To fear that even if I use the words I do have, I’ll be judged, scrutinized, and pushed deeper into the dark tunnel that seemingly has no end.

To feel psychotic because my anxiety has highlighted the worst of my fears–as a mother, as a woman, and as a human trapped in a world that tells me that being strong goes hand-in-hand with being Black.

My greatest hope is that mothers of color will find the courage they need to speak their truth when motherhood isn’t their friend.

But I know that’s not always easy. I also know that accepting help presents its own set of challenges that we must all find a way to overcome in our own time. But above it all, I know that I am not alone, and neither are you.

And one by one, the more we share our stories, the more the world will know and learn to accept that we exist.

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