Many women may not know, but October was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. This year, we heard stories from women opening up more than ever before. The awareness must continue.
Everyday millions of women suffer in silence due to unexpected loss of a pregnancy. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, early pregnancy loss is common; occurring in "10 percent of all clinically recognized pregnancies." Approximately "80 percent of all cases of pregnancy loss occur within the first trimester, with 50 percent of all cases of early pregnancy loss due to fetal chromosomal abnormalities." The most common risk factors identified among women who have experienced early pregnancy loss are advanced maternal age, and a prior early pregnancy loss. The "frequency of clinically recognized early pregnancy loss for women aged 20-to-30 years is nine-to-17 percent," and this rate increases sharply "from 20 percent at age 35, to 40 percent at age 40, and 80 percent at age 45."
Although losing a child for any woman is devastating, further research shows that those numbers are much higher in the black communities. According to Return to Zero, "Black infants have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate compared to white babies, and are 3.8 times as likely to die from complications related to low birth weight." Black mothers are also disproportionately affected; "three-to-four times as likely to die from pregnancy related causes."
This year, awareness of mental, physical, and emotional health is specifically shining a spotlight on the black-and-brown communities. Being heard and recognized is imperative. It's time to speak out on the heartbreaking realization that we don't or aren't afforded the same medical attentions as our white counterparts; which in itself, is mind blowing. Women suffer in silence each day. They have no one to talk to, are not taking symptoms seriously, or can not afford the "luxury" of taking care of their mental well being. Most importantly, lack of representation in the medical field shows a disconnect in the delivery of information and resources. Relatable figures are needed to connect with our culture on a different level.
Shades of You, Shades of Me (SOFSOM) is an organization that empowers women of color to advocate for improved mental health access and services, offering peer group support, home visits, and community resources." This year, Shonita Roach, the founder of SOFSOM hosted the "2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference (www.soysom.com)." The conference was "an interactive, virtual event that brings together mental health professionals, policymakers, medical providers, doulas, advocates and community leaders from diverse backgrounds to have informed, community-focused conversations surrounding maternal mental health." Full press release here.
In honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I was able to dive deeper into why mental health representation and the healthcare industry are both a personal-and-passionate journey for Shonita through this eye-opening Q&A.
Q. Shonita, could you tell our readers a little about yourself?
A. My name is Shonita Roach, and I am the Founder and Executive Director of the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference.
Q. October was National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month and you have a nonprofit organization, “Shades of You, Shades of Me” (SOYSOM) that is dedicated to helping women of color navigate the medical world when it comes to maternal mental health and how to access necessary services. Could you tell us a little more about your organization, and why it was important for you to start it?
A. As a survivor of childhood abuse, child loss and postpartum depression; my mission as a maternal mental health advocate is to help women (particularly Women of Color) to advocate for themselves, and mental health services. I accomplish this work through my organization Shades of You, Shades of Me. The statistics for Black-and-Brown maternal mental health and birth mortality are staggering. It’s a dire situation and we must take these issues head on so that we can save the lives of Women of Color (WOC) and babies of color across this country.
Q. Shonita, I read that your dedication to this cause runs deep; because you, yourself, have suffered through traumatic-and-life altering moments. From dealing with sexual trauma as a child to losing your son when he was only 21 months. During these painful times, did you have the support that you needed? If not, how did you cope?
A. Losing my son to an accidental death and then going through postpartum depression have been some of the lowest moments of my life. At the time, I did not have the support of family, as my childhood was far from what you would call safe or healthy. However; through extensive therapy, parenting classes and spiritual healing, I’ve learned to establish a consistent relationship with a therapist that specializes in trauma and created the support groups that I felt that I needed but couldn’t find. This inspired me to create SOYSOM.
Q. Do you think women of color are left to suffer in silence when tragedy strikes? How does that affect us mentally and emotionally?
A. Studies show that Black women are more likely to have postpartum depression that goes undiagnosed and treated. As a society, we force women to suffer in silence on these matters, and I do believe it is slowly killing us. That’s why it’s so important for women to feel empowered to accept their full selves... all of the shades of themselves that may be angry, sad or shamed, and come to forums like the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference, without judgment.
Q. Why do you think women of color struggle when it comes to finding medical providers that will listen and take us serious without thinking we might be” exaggerating?"
A. There is a lack of access to quality mental health facilities and services in marginalized communities. This is where representation in the medical field matters so much. Having a provider that can identify with you, culturally, allows (you) the patient, to become more familiar and comfortable with them. It eliminates the fear of the provider overlooking important and real medical, psychological or emotional challenges you may be facing.
Q. Sadly, news broke of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend suffering the loss of their son Jack. People criticized Chrissy for sharing her story and sharing pictures. Why do you think people are so quick to tell others how to grieve?
A. It is so sad to hear about this loss for Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. This is a prime example of how our society shames women’s reproductive health. Occurrences like miscarriage, stillbirth and child loss are all supposed to be handled and dealt with behind closed doors. As a society, we have to change the way we view these sensitive and emotional times. We have to be willing to accept all of the feelings in order to grow, heal, and thrive.
Q. The lost of a child can be mentally damaging to anyone. You build a bond with your child growing inside of you; and when you lose that child, its devastating. How important is it for women to have a strong support system around them, and what would you tell someone who doesn’t exactly know how to support the mother?
A. Everyone copes with death and grief in different ways, so I’d say the most important thing is for the woman to do her best to know what her triggers and stressors are. Be willing to accept help if your family and friends notice that you may need more support or additional help from medical professionals. For the family and support, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with literature that can provide direction on how to best support the mourning mother. Often, it’s the little things that can show you care: bringing a cup of tea, being willing to listen, and being a shoulder to cry on.
Q. At the age of 18, I was pregnant with my first child. I lost the baby at 12 weeks. After the miscarriage, I didn’t speak about it and kept my feelings to myself; because my mom was already upset about the pregnancy, so I just talked myself into believing that maybe it wasn’t meant to be. I told myself I shouldn’t have been pregnant in the first place. Why do you think women sike themselves into believing it was their fault, or was not meant to be... amongst other thoughts, we have to try to comfort ourselves?
A. First, I’m sorry you had to go through that experience. As a society, we expect women to suffer in silence, rationalize and compartmentalize our grief. In our western culture, women bare the brunt of the weight and responsibility of the childrearing and home duties. So, when we go through miscarriage or stillbirth, we wrongfully feel guilty, almost that we are not fulfilling our “responsibility.” This is why therapy and talking through these feelings is so important. This is NOT your fault and you are still a good person.
Q. Your organization hosted the Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference this year. Please, tell us a little more about the conference?
A. SOYSOM was proud to host the 2020 Multicultural Maternal Mental Health Conference (www.soysom.com); an interactive, virtual event that brings together mental health professionals, policymakers, medical providers, doulas, advocates and community leaders from diverse backgrounds to have informed, community-focused conversations surrounding maternal mental health.
This year’s theme, “COVID-19 + Multiculturalism in Maternal Mental Health Care” will spotlight how the global pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities through a variety of sectors, including politics, business, incarceration, prevention services and healthcare.
Q. What was your goal for the conference?
A. Our conference is the ONLY conference specifically devoted to the maternal mental health of women of color. My goal was to have open and productive conversations surrounding maternal mental healthcare, particularly for Women of Color. Our mission is and was to debunk misconceptions about mental health and help other mothers from all backgrounds feel secure and confident in their journey through motherhood so they feel empowered to reach out if they are in need of support.
Q. Why do women of color suffer from perinatal depression or anxiety more than white women?
A. Things like socio-economic background and race affect perinatal depression and anxiety rates. Additionally, Women of Color are less likely to talk about these feelings for a number of reasons; including embarrassment, the stigmas of needing mental health services or the fear of being discriminated against or judged.
Q. It amazes me that healthcare is still an issue when it comes to minority communities. Why it is such a struggle for us to receive the healthcare we are entitled to?
A. We can’t ignore the historical and cultural context of the U.S. healthcare system and its relationship with communities of color. Specifically, Black people have built up a lot of valid and understandable mistrust, because of things like the Tuskegee study or how during slavery, Black women were wet nurses for white babies, but discouraged from feeding their own children. And, all of this was happening in a nation where, overall, people of color were not treated equally in nearly every facet of life. Marginalized communities often have less access to healthy-and-affordable food and grocery stores, transportation and support services. It’s no surprise that there would be a lack of access and quality mental health facilities and services. The current structures are rooted in disenfranchisement, and were not set up not to benefit us. I believe it will take a complete overhaul in order for there to be substantial change.
Q. Why do you believe that women of color aren’t informed on the different options we can take when it comes to our birth plans it seems like we are given one choice when there are so many to choose from?
A. We are very fortunate to live in a country with state-of-the-art research and facilities. However, they are often rigid in the processes of procedures like labor and delivery. Black maternal mortality rates are staggering in this country; and now, we’re seeing an increase in doulas of diverse backgrounds. I love that doulas can provide more intimate, one-on-one care for women and they often serve as a wonderful advocate while you’re in delivery.
Studies show that having doulas of diverse backgrounds contribute to reducing maternal and infant mortality rates. What I love about doulas is, they are community-based and do a lot more intimate, one-on-one work with women. They fill the gap where the traditional healthcare system lacks.
Q. You are on the board of PSI-Wisconsin. How important is for us to have people in the medical field or medical organizations that look like us and understands us?
A. Representation in medical professionals matters, because it helps the patient become more familiar and comfortable during this sensitive time in a woman’s life. Ideally, the relationship between a provider and a patient is an ongoing one, so you want to know that your provider understands your cultural background and unique needs.
Q. Shonita, can you let the readers know how we can do our part when it comes to advocating for women’s rights when it comes to our physical health and mental health?
A. First, I would say, learn to listen to your body’s needs and speak up. Do your best to be educated about your health. If you feel overwhelmed, sad or angry, reach out for help.
Q. What is some advice you can give to women who feel like that are not being heard while trying to seek professional help or do not have a good support system at home?
A. I think community-based organizations often fill the gap where the traditional medical field is lacking; so, I’d say to try to find an organization in your community that can help you. While having a strong support system is definitely helpful, sometimes all you need is one person in your life who can provide support or a helping hand.
Q. What is next for you and your foundation? Where can everyone follow you to support Shades of You, Shades of Me (SOYSOM)?
A. We’re going to continue providing support to Women of Color! All of you are a part of this story and conversation. I encourage you to keep up with our events and resources at www.SOYSOM.com. Engage with us on social media @ShadesofYouCon!
Learn More About Shonita Roach and SOYSOM
Shonita Roach is a mental health advocate and the Founder of Shades of You, Shades of Me, an organization that empowers women of color to advocate for improved mental health access and services, offering peer group support, home visits, and community resources. Full Bio Here