Beyond the Baby Blues

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Kimberly Seals Allers

My girlfriend had a beautiful baby boy two weeks ago. Now she’s having tearful meltdowns nearly every day.

I’ve tried to assure her that part of what she is experiencing is very normal. The hormonal freefall after birth can be so powerful. And the overwhelming nature of life with a newborn can break down even the strongest woman–even if it’s your third child, as in my friend’s case, or perhaps precisely because it is your third child! In fact, about 1 and 8 women experience some sort of postpartum depression within the first few months after childbirth.

But my Spidey senses are all in overdrive because I know black women have a special relationship with postpartum depression. For starters, we don’t talk about it. In fact, depression in general, is a taboo topic in our community.

Yet, depression among black women is more common than most realize. Formal statistics on depression in African American women are either uncertain or non-existent because the research is scarce. But studies have indicated that we experience postpartum at a higher rate than white women.

After all, African-American women live with more depressing stressors. We are black and female and living in a society that frequently devalues our children and our culture and undermines the significant roles we play in our communities. And because we are so used to suiting up in our Strong Black Woman gear, we take it personally or as if we have somehow failed miserably when we just can’t handle it or keep it together post baby. And we have rarely allowed ourselves to be damsels in distress, vulnerable or able to ask for help. But I’m here to tell you ladies that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a character defect or a moral failing.

With so many nuances as to how we process and respond to postpartum depression, I canvassed the Internet to find out exactly what researchers do actually know about black women and postpartum depression. It may not be groundbreaking stuff, but it is certainly eye-opening and worth sharing. So here goes:

  1. Our postpartum depression may be a result of lack of social support and more child-related duties among other issues.
  2. It is also associated with more physical issues (back pain, tiredness, headaches) in comparison to Caucasian women, according to one study.
  3. Black women culturally view it as a sign of weakness and often have feelings of guilt that they can not live up to certain cultural ideas like the "Strong Black Woman."
  4. We often treat it through the use of self-talk or by confiding in family and/or friends.
  5. Is sometimes a secret, as African-American women may sometimes fear the cultural stigma attached to depression, as well as the negative consequences of confiding in the medical community. These negative consequences include past atrocities in the health care system, such as those illustrated by the film Miss Evers’ Boys.
  6. It is sometimes recognized in the African-American culture as not having faith in God, being possessed by demons or a form of punishment for wrongdoings.
  7. In general, black women handle postpartum depression better in comparison to their white counterparts.

The problem may be nuanced and complex, but the solutions seem simple: more support.

In a study on race and postpartum emotions by the University of Iowa, the researchers found that "strong social support can serve as a buffer against postpartum depression, and that poor social support is a major predictor of postpartum depression.Past studies have also shown that Latina mothers tend to have more social support, while African-American women tend to have weaker support networks," the study said. The researchers speculate that these ethnic differences in social support might account for racial differences and the higher rate of depressed moods among black women during the postpartum period.

If you know a new mom, offer your support, beyond the, "hey girl, how are you?" phone call. I’m brushing up on my new baby skills, packing the hand sanitizer, my trademark good humor and some yummy take-out and heading to my girlfriend’s house this week. Keep you posted!

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