Childbirth has been renowned as one of the most wondrous things a mother can experience - but how much truth is there really to this? Complications related to pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum have been shown to take an immense toll on maternal mental health. Black mothers, who have outcomes up to 4 times worse than their white counterparts, lie at the pits of the maternal mental health crisis. What’s more, is that regardless of their income or education, Black women are still three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. Olympic gold-medalist Serena Williams speaks to her own experience:
“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”
April 11th marked the first day of the Black Maternal Health Week this year. This week, we bring awareness to Black women who endure insensitivity, racism, discrimination, and stigma from healthcare professionals during childbirth. Despite being largely underreported, one study collected the horrific stories of numerous Black women, one victim recalls:
“My pregnancy was a challenge due to severe nausea but the hospital did not make my experiences any better for most of my visits. I remember fainting at the triage and instead of helping me up, one of the nurses ask me to help myself up. I was furious because I felt my pregnancy or health meant nothing to them. […] There were other incidents such as refusing to help me while in pain and sending me home because they assume, I was in the hospital too long.”
While each traumatic incident is unique, the inequities faced by Black mothers are not. What lies beneath the mistreatment, violence, and trauma, is a healthcare system that reeks of systemic racism. While trying to receive culturally sensitive care, Black mothers share that they are ignored, disrespected, harmed and overlooked during childbirth. The outcome of this is seen in the alarmingly high prevalence of maternal mental health disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety amongst Black women.
Whether it be clinicians that lack experience with Black patients, the implicit use of prejudice and stereotypes in making medical decisions, or outright racism – Black mothers are severely psychologically impacted by their healthcare providers. However, more than individual behaviour, it is the system that allows such mistreatment that should be re-evaluated.
Pregnancy and childbirth should be a dignified, safe, and joyful experience for all. If the Black maternal mental health crisis goes unaddressed, this beautiful experience, that all mothers deserve, will continuously be stripped away from Black mothers. Neglecting such blatant injustices means we choose to ignore the Black suffering inflicted by our own doctors.
It is absolutely vital that we centre the voices of Black women by developing systems of care where they serve as the primary healthcare providers and are trained to be culturally responsive. Doing so will address the Black maternal mental health crisis, and ensure Canada’s universal healthcare, is truly universal.