Postpartum Depression and the Stigma of the “Strong Black Woman”

Last week Aleah Newell, age 20, was charged with killing her 2-year-old son Johntavious Newell, and her 7-month-old son Ameer Newell. In addition to those charges, Newell also was charged with the attempted murder of her 70-year-old grandfather, Cordell Walker. Newell stabbed her infant son and placed him in a bathtub of scalding water. She proceeded to cut the screen of the 11th-floor window open and threw her 2-year-old toddler out of the window. Newell jumped out afterward, with hopes of committing suicide. However, she survived the fall. Tragically, her toddler did not. A week before these heinous acts, Newell asked for help. Women at the Shield of Hope shelter said Newell begged the staff to take her children because she could not care for them on her own. In response to Newell’s pleas, the shelter told her she had to “do it on her own.” Newell also asked her mother to care for her children so that she could get her life together. Newell’s mother said that she tried to attempt suicide during the summer of 2019, and took medication for an unspecified mood disorder. Newell also had a brother who committed suicide in 2017.

African-American women like Newell, are at higher risk for postpartum depression; however, they are less likely to get the help that they need. A few reasons are, minority women are economically at a disadvantage, and there is implicit bias in postpartum care for Black women by a few medical providers and limited access to quality medical care. According to Psychology Today, “up to 20 percent of women develop a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD). For Black women, the risk is almost twice that. The figure climbs to 44 percent for Black women compared to 31 percent of white women. And yet, fewer Black women get help for these common and treatable conditions.” The consequences for untreated postpartum depression are depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and in the worst-case scenario, postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis symptoms are similar to a bipolar or manic episode. A few of the symptoms include auditory hallucinations, erratic behavior, suicidal thoughts, and violent thoughts of a mother hurting her baby. Postpartum depression in Black women is a silent epidemic. Contributing to the silence is societal guilt, familial shame, fear of having their children removed from their care, and, most of all, the “superwoman” trope.

There is an assumption in the Black community that a Black woman’s penchant for pain- emotional, mental, and physical is extraordinary. Being resilient and self-sufficient is often emphasized. A perfect example would be the scenario above that Newell encountered when she was told to “do it on her own” when she sought help in caring for her children. Unfortunately for Newell, “doing it on her own,” led to tragic results. Black mothers are often influenced by the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype. This “superwoman” myth as it pertains to caring for her children passes down from generation to generation. The elders tend to hold new mothers to a high standard, expecting them to parent in the same way that they did. However, the result of that influence for a new mother is denying herself of the appropriate self-care and treatment that she needs because she does not want to be perceived as incompetent in caring for her children and weak for seeking help. A new mother expressing the vulnerability that she feels is difficult because of the “Strong Black Woman” stigma. Teen mom advocate and author of “Black Women and Postpartum Depression”, Gloria Malone contends, “Black women are socialized and raised with the goal of being strong women. Part of achieving this can mean associating very human emotions and reactions (like sadness and crying) with “weakness” and “failure.” But we don’t have to accept that, and we don’t have to suffer in silence.” Postpartum depression is an illness and not a reflection of one as a mother.

Kelly Washington, Contributing Writer

 

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