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Note: I know. I said I was taking a break. I still plan on taking one for at least the first few months of 2013, but I realized I do have a post or two that I want to share … Continue reading

Postpartum Depression: It Doesn’t Just “Happen” to White Women

Today I sat down here at the computer, pulled up Google and typed the following into the search box:

how many African American women suffer from postpartum depression?

do Black women suffer from postpartum depression?

how do Black women deal with postpartum depression?

Guess what came up? NOTHING.  Not one specific thing that answered the questions I queried. The closest I got was an article that discussed a study done in Iowa back in 2008, and an article that discussed the link between domestic violence and postpartum depression in African-American women. 

What’s wrong with this picture? Why is it that among the thousands upon thousands of search results returned, nothing specific, direct, and “here’s what you’re looking for, click here!” was featured on the first page of results? Or the second page? Why is so much of the information not recent or particularly relevant?

This not only frustrates me but it saddens me. Angers me even. If a simple Google search doesn’t yield solid results, how are black women supposed to find the help they may need?

That’s if women of color even think they need help in the mental health department, cause let’s face it: Black people don’t do therapy, medication, and definitely don’t “believe” in mental illness.

I could spend all day talking about why African Americans don’t seek help for any kind of mental struggle but it pretty much boils down to the fact that we don’t think we need help. Ask a person of color about this and you’re likely to hear the following:

  • Due to slavery, 400 years of oppression and trauma, black people feel that if we survived all of that, we can survive anything-WITHOUT help from a doctor
  • Your family is your therapist-why waste money talking to some expensive doctor about your problems when you can just talk to your mama or grandma for free? It’s their advice that matters because after all, look at what they went through, at what they have survived-they made it, and so will you!
  • Bootstraps. Black people have the strongest, longest, toughest bootstraps in the world-and when faced with adversity, we pull ourselves up by them and “keep it movin.”
  • Church. You can pray away any of your troubles. Seriously. If you pray and you’re still having mental issues, then you’re faith just isn’t strong enough and maybe you did something to deserve what you’re going through.
  • To admit you have a problem is to admit weakness. Weakness doesn’t happen to us. We are strong. We survived slavery, remember?
  • Therapy & meds are too expensive

And the list can go on forever.  You’re probably thinking that some of what I just mentioned sounds outrageous and I’d have to agree with you that it does. But these are the things that perpetuate stigmas about mental illness in the black community.

I can also tell you that for women of color the stigmas run even deeper and the expectations for us are even higher. Black women in our community are viewed as strong, capable, able to handle anything and conquer adversity  like Michael Jordan conquered dunks back in his hey day-with incredible, effortless, ease. We make do with what we have, we sacrifice what we need to, and we NEVER (I mean NEVER) complain about any of it.  We endure hardships like single parenthood with our mouths shut…our mothers and their mothers before them handled life that way, and without outside help, why would we do any different?

After I had Alex, my postpartum depression manifested as uncontrollable rage, severe swings in moods and severe anxiety. Alex would cry and I would literally want to crawl out of my skin.  Brennan would spill something and I would either explode in anger or burst into tears. Think I could talk to anyone about it? I tried talking to my mom…..I got the bootstrap, “God will work it out, ” and “just give it time” speech. I talked to some women at my church….”I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. I mean, look at all you have to deal with, especially being a single parent. If you’re circumstances were different, you’d be fine. You’re alright. Trust me,” was the consensus. I even had a friend tell me that they were “giving up” on me, and that my “problems” were too much to deal with.

I wasn’t fine. Not by a long shot. So I called my state funded health insurance and found a therapist. Only he wasn’t a real therapist-he was a state social worker. His reaction? “Any woman in your position would feel the way you do. That doesn’t mean you have PPD. Lots of women like you, who are black & single mothers with more than one child feel this way.”  Lots of women “like” me? Really?

What’s my point by saying all of this? It’s simple, really:

BLACK WOMEN SUFFER FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION TOO. 

I know they do. They have to. Because I did. I’m recovered now and I have a new diagnosis, but the fact still remains that I spent a year after Alex’s birth fighting my way through PPD.  But you wouldn’t know that if I didn’t talk about it. And we don’t know how many other black mothers are out there, suffering in silence, thinking that they “don’t have time” or are “too blessed to be stressed” to properly deal with the hell they are experiencing, thinking it’s a natural part of motherhood and even single parenthood.

We only hear about postpartum depression from white female celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Brooke Shields. The closest I’ve found to anyone in the black “celebrity” community discussing PPD is Mocha Manual author & speaker Kimberly Seals Ayers, whose PPD story you can read here.  Even she admits that PPD is more common among women of color but no one will admit to or talk about it. Essence, Ebony, and other magazines geared toward “black” audiences have yet to publish any significant articles on the subject in their health features. I can’t recall reading even ONE.

I asked a friend of mine today why she thinks women of color, particularly younger women,  don’t seek treatment for issues like PPD. She’s a new mother whose son was born premature and has been struggling with PPD pretty badly. Her response?

I think it’s real problem that more women my age (she’s 24) suffer from than would admit…Black people have this mindset that going to therapy and taking meds means you’re crazy instead of meaning that you’re informed about your mental health & getting healthy. Until I actually went to  therapy and got meds I was one of those uneducated people who thought & was afraid that people would think I was “crazy” and would need meds to function, you know?

Postpartum depression just doesn’t happen to white women. It happens to black women and other women of color too. What is it going to take to change the perception and stigma? How can it even BE changed if no one will talk about it?

I don’t know what the answer is y’all but I’m determined more than ever to be a voice and to keep sharing my story and my experience because mamas of color & their babies deserve strong, healthy starts too. Here’s to hoping that one day my voice encourages others to speak up and reach out too. I’ll leave you with this quote from Monica Coleman, Ph.D. (click her name to visit her website! it’s incredible!)

In many ways, I do think that there is a greater stigma among African-American culture than among white cultures. I live in southern California, and many white people will freely reference “seeing a therapist” in normal conversation. Black people don’t do that. Seeing a therapist is generally seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. There is still an active mythos of “the strong black woman,” who is supposed to be strong and present and capable for everyone in her family – and neglects her own needs. In the midst of a depressive episode, I had a friend say to me, “We are the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery. Whatever you’re going through cannot be that bad.” I was so hurt and angry by that statement. No, depression isn’t human trafficking, genocide or slavery, but it is real death-threatening pain to me. And of course, there are those who did not survive those travesties. But that comment just made me feel small and selfish and far worse than before. It made me wish I had never said anything at all.