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Why America needs a Black Maternal Health Week

Brenda Shelton-Dunston, ED of the Philadelphia Black Women's Health Alliance. April 12, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod
Earlier this year, Serena Williams spoke out about medical mistreatment after giving birth.

Predispositioned for blood clots, a nurse thought the tennis star was “confused” from her pain medicine, but later, the tennis megastar was proven right when a CT scan revealed and confirmed that she, in fact, had several blood clots in her lungs. The clots caused intense coughing spells, which caused her emergency C-section wound to pop open; doctors found a large hematoma when she returned to surgery.

And last year, we witnessed the death of New York City activist Erica Garner, whose passing has also since been attributed to the Black mother “mortality crisis.”

The Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) wants to shed light on the challenges Black mothers face on a regular basis when seeking adequate healthcare. That’s why the DC-based group organized the first-ever Black Maternal Health Week, taking place from April 11 to 17 this year.

April is also recognized as National Minority Health Month in the United States, and April 11 is recognized as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights by the United Nations.

Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women.

“We thought a national week would be a good way to keep this important conversation going and highlight key resources and stakeholders working to advance Black maternal health,” explained Elizabeth Dawes Gay, steering committee chair of BMMA. “I hope that after the week, people are better informed about the issue beyond the popular statistic that Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women. That’s just the surface of the issue.”

From our Partners

Brenda Shelton-Duston, executive director of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Alliance (PBWHA), uses social determinants — or risk factors, such as income, poverty, education and environment — to discuss systemic health problems that affect Black women.

PBWHA offers a holistic approach toward Black maternal health. Its evidence-based, community-driven programs use peer-to-peer, intergenerational strategies to build supportive communities of women as well as “create a legacy of wellness” to encourage emotional wellbeing.

Take its Prime Time Sister Circle program for women between the ages of 45 and 70, which focuses on stress management, exercise and nutrition. According to findings from its five-month program, which ended in January 2012, 40 percent of participants who don’t prioritize their health when starting the program ended up indicating health as a priority by the program ending; 68 percent of participants lost weight; 20 percent of participants experienced a significant reduction in stress; and 17 percent of participants experienced a decrease in hypertension.

But it’s not just about social determinants, said Deborah D. Roebuck, a women’s health consultant who also volunteers with PBWHA.

“There are more risk factors and less protective factors, that you would consider nutrition [and] weight,” Roebuck explained. “How can we help these women get a better health status that not just includes physical, but emotional [health]?”

For her dissertation as a doctoral candidate in nursing at Drexel University, Roebuck found that 26 percent of the low-income African American women she surveyed had depression prior to their pregnancy. When she examined the women two months after giving birth, the rate of feeling “down, depressed, or hopeless” was about 36 percent.

Brenda Shelton-Duston emphasized that this mental health disparity is a symptom of racism and discrimination.

Roebeck said Black women experience “a deficit” from a lack of support, especially for their mental health. Black Americans are 10 percent more likely to experience high psychological distress compared to white Americans. Additionally, women are twice as more likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to men.

Shelton-Duston emphasized that this mental health disparity is a symptom of racism and discrimination.

“There isn’t a difference in the desires [and values of being healthy] of the majority population versus minority populations, but the factors within our country,” she said. “Our society brings forth racism and discrimination, the biases we’re not even aware of.”

PBWHA’s programs target women and girls at different life stages, since emotional wellbeing doesn’t start and stop during a time of childbearing — it’s a lifelong priority. PBWHA also offers a mental health and wellness program for girls aged 12 to 19 called Students Talking About Reality (STAR), anti-dating violence program for teens called Safe Dates, and parenting leadership program called Supporting Our Sisters (SOS).

Although there is plenty of data to prove these programs are successful, funding is a huge obstacle to keep these programs running. Grants have helped the organization survive, but PBWHA also looks to nonprofit partnerships to decrease health disparities in the surrounding community.

“We want everyone to join the conversation as it is meant to be just that,” Dawes Gay said. “We want people to have a dialogue about what’s happening and bring others to the dialogue with them.”

To participate the Black Maternal Health Week conversation this week, follow BMMA on Twitter and participate in the #BMHW18 chat.

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