Society and media portray having a child as one of the many great joys of life. They say the connection between mother and baby is natural, warm, and awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, the reality is different for many women. In the United States, about 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression. For Black women, postpartum depression can be particularly jarring. They face disparities in diagnosis and treatment, along with the stigma of being bad mothers.
Postpartum depression presents differently for each person. However, common symptoms include mood swings, excessive crying, overwhelming fatigue, and disconnection with the baby. While the majority of new mothers experience “baby blues” for about a week, postpartum depression is generally more long term. It leads people to feel hopeless, worthless, and inadequate as parents. Although postpartum depression mostly affects women, new fathers can also develop symptoms.
Postpartum depression is usually diagnosed through mood-related symptom evaluations. The healthcare provider will ask the patient questions to determine the severity of their condition. Black women have particularly low treatment initiation rates compared to other races. This is primarily due to postpartum depression screening tools being developed based on research with white participants. The tools are less accurate for people who explain their mental illnesses differently. Black Americans are more likely to say they “don’t feel like themselves” rather than use the term “depression.” It is also common for mental illnesses to manifest as physical symptoms for ethnic minorities. Therefore, Black women should take note of changes in appetite, trouble sleeping, headaches, and stomach pains as possible indicators of postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression is typically treated with medication or psychotherapy. It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible, since symptoms may worsen with time. Although Black and low-income women are more likely to develop postpartum depression, they are also less likely to receive treatment for it. Social and economic barriers prevent access to resources. Consequently, Black mothers are less likely than their white counterparts to get a prescription refilled. Fortunately, there are organizations specifically catered towards their needs. Black Women Birthing Justice is a collective that transforms birthing experiences for Black women and trans folks. Therapy For Black Girls is a platform that connects Black women with culturally competent therapists. And The Loveland Foundation provides financial aid for Black women seeking mental health treatments.
Besides financial barriers, Black mothers may put off treatment due to the stigma of being a Black woman with postpartum depression. As psychologist Amber A. Hewitt notes in an interview with Zora, Black women are culturally scripted to be “superwomen.” They are expected to overcome any crisis without wallowing. Therefore, a mental illness diagnosis can make them feel incompetent as mothers. Society pressures struggling Black mothers to preoccupy themselves with responsibilities. Mental health professionals should be mindful of this stigma as it contributes to Black mothers’ hesitancy.
Another stigma that prevents Black women from pursuing treatment is that they are seen as inherently bad mothers. In a piece for Time, Tope Fadiran Charlton writes about the myth of “Bad Black Mother.” She recounts how baseless judgments of her mothering made her feel “invisible and suspect.” Black mothers are disincentivized from opening up about postpartum depression for fear of contributing to the stereotype.
To encourage their mental wellbeing, we must recognize Black mothers as unique individuals with unique needs. Moreover, we must divorce our ideals of “perfect” motherhood from lived experiences. Only then can Black women with postpartum depression receive the care and respect they deserve.