Despite all of the radiant glowing and happiness that society associates with pregnancy, for many women this is not the case at all. The glossy pregnancy magazines and all the smiling, content faces, filled with euphoric expectation and joy, do not represent everyone’s pregnancy experience. Instead of feelings of happiness, many women feel confusion, fear, sadness, stress and even depression.
About 10 to 20% of women will struggle with symptoms of depression during pregnancy and a quarter to half of these will suffer from major depression. It is not that surprising a condition when you consider that pregnancy depression is a mood disorder just as normal depression is. Mood disorders are biological illnesses that involve changes and brain chemicals. And since pregnancy hormones can affect brain chemicals directly related to depression and anxiety, pregnant women can be, in some cases, more susceptible.
The bigger problem with depression as it relates to Black women is that symptoms closely resemble something we call life. We have convinced ourselves that feeling sad overwhelmed, lonely, and sick and tired are part and parcel of being a Black woman, particularly a strong Black woman. So we have a lot of denial about depression, which our folk negatively label as, “crazy,” “weak,” or “lazy.” We rationalize that being a strong Black woman from a line of similar women who survived with an indomitable spirit, somehow makes us immune to depression. The statistics on Black women are scared and uncertain, not because we don’t suffer from depression but because we don’t associate those types of feelings with a real Illness, but rather with passing things that we shall overcome. We have misguided beliefs about our ability to persevere. I mean, come on, we’ve been through slavery, reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, Reaganomics, and we’re still kicking, we reason. And when we consider what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went through (and they will remind us!), we figure they’ve had it much worse so we better shut up and “deal with it.” We got Jesus, Oprah, and now, Dr. Phil, so somehow we’ll make it through.
Yet African American women report depression symptoms including restlessness, boredom, and anxiety more than Black men and white women and men. We also have a depression rate that is 2 times higher than that of European American women, according to one study. Other research puts that depression rate at three times higher than white women’s.
What to do
- If you’re depressed, take off the strong Black woman superhero outfit. Pack it away. If your belief system says, I’m strong and should be able to handle all situations, when the occasion inevitably arises that you can’t do these things, you think you’re a failure. Those feelings can lead to depression.
- Recognize that pregnancy depression is very serious. Not seeking health is putting your baby in danger. You have a baby inside you who needs to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy.
- Can you lighten your load? Cut down on your chores errands for others, and other stressful activities. Try to do things that will help you relax and regroup.
- If your trigger is relationship-related, remember that if a relationship goes bad, it doesn’t mean that we failed or that we can’t ever have a fulfilling relationship. It just means that particular relationship didn’t work out for us. You cannot hold yourself responsible for another person’s choice. Surround yourself with positive stories of successful single mothers, couples who’ve drastically improved their marital situation, and women who have thrived after freeing themselves from abusive relationships.
- As simple as this may sound, Black people are socialized not to air dirty laundry, so to speak. We are reluctant to share our problems, particularly with strangers. Talk to your doctor, a friend, a trusted relative. If you feel embarrassed, call an anonymous hotline or your employer’s Employee Assistance Program, if available. Never try to face depression alone when you’re pregnant; your baby needs you to seek help.
- Find support groups. Group sessions can be more supportive for many women, providing a place to help understand depression and what can be done about it. And most of all, there’s often comfort in numbers. Knowing, and actually seeing that you are not alone is sometimes a powerful tool for overcoming negative feelings. Contact the National Black Women’s Health Project for information on some of its support groups.
- Consider private therapy. Choose a culturally competent professional who understands the complexities of a Black woman’s life. Studies prove that we are more likely to receive better treatment and respond to it when we have a therapist. Some Black therapists recommend a complete medical and family history and cultural assessment to help determine the root cause of depression.
- Be open to other therapies, including light, meditation, and relaxation therapy; programs that help you develop alternate crisis management and coping skills; and programs for improving nutrition and exercise.
- Medication may help. Sometimes depression can be extreme. They are no triggers, no known causes. If you won the lottery tomorrow, you would still be sad. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may suggest medication. A warning: studies show that Black women may be more sensitive to certain antidepressants and may require smaller dosages than usually prescribed. So do your research on the different types of medication and their effects.
Here are some resources for Black women dealing with postpartum depression:
- Shades of Blue
- Shades of Light; under the membership of Postpartum Resource Center of New York
- Postpartum Support International
Excerpted from The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005) by Kimberly Seals Allers