Q&A with Sandra Igwe, founder of The Motherhood Group, during Black Maternal Mental Health Week
Mum of two Sandra is the founder of The Motherhood Group, a safe space for black mums, with a particular focus on maternal mental health. Levels of postnatal depression and anxiety are 13% higher in black mothers than their white counterparts, but they’re also less likely to receive appropriate treatment. This week The Motherhood Group launched the UK’s first Black Maternal Mental Health Week, following on from the FivexMore Awareness Week in September.
On Saturday 3 October, The Motherhood Group is holding the inaugural Black Mum Fest, a festival dedicated to exploring the black motherhood experience. They’re also crowdfunding for a Black Mum Support Fund, to provide black mums with doulas and perinatal mental health support. I spoke to Sandra about her work, and why black mums urgently need more support before, during and after giving birth.
SG: What healthcare experiences do you particularly remember from your own pregnancies and births?
SI: I just didn’t really feel like I was treated with the care and respect that I deserved. I didn’t feel like healthcare staff were listening to my words. I was asked to go home quite a few times, and I didn’t feel like they actually gave me specific care and understanding. Staff dismissed my views and my pain wasn’t taken seriously.
Is that something that you hear a lot from other black women within The Motherhood Group?
Yeah, my experiences have definitely been echoed several times. I’ve had mums share their experiences with me at our events and workshops, and also on our online platforms. So I know that my situation isn’t a standalone event, from my friends, from family, and other mums that I’ve spoken to. Black women across different ages have been treated unfairly when giving birth, and also throughout their pregnancy. Black mothers face biased opinions and judgmental views against us, our pain is dismissed, healthcare workers don’t believe us when we’re saying we’re feeling x, y or z, and we’re made to feel like we’re exaggerating or being hysterical. A general theme is a lack of trust between black mothers and the NHS, or healthcare services.
What was it then that led you to found The Motherhood Group?
There was no platform for black mums at the time when I gave birth. I didn’t feel like there were enough spaces for mothers of colour to share challenges that were specific for us. We have issues surrounding sickle cell, for example, which groups for white mothers weren’t speaking about because it’s more prevalent in our communities. We have issues such as cultural barriers involving African traditions and culture, which obviously white mums don’t have to go through. We also have issues around the taboo in mental health. Of course, that goes across the board, but mental health in the black community is still only just about being spoken about, especially in the African and Caribbean communities. Our parents don’t necessarily believe that it’s a real thing, or that it’s something black women or black people go through. Mental health problems are often spiritualised as being the devil, or that Jesus can take it away. Whereas we’re now bringing more education and insight into the black community, that black mums can have mental health challenges, both postpartum and during their pregnancies.
Have you found barriers within the healthcare system, as well as from black communities, in terms of accessing support for perinatal mental health problems?
To get support a lot of the time it really feels like you have to be on the upper end of the spectrum, so suffering from psychosis or in danger of physically harming your baby. But a lot of black women do go through depression, anxiety, milder forms of sadness, and low mood. It just feels like, because we are so used to the myth of the strong, independent black woman who can handle everything, that we’re not getting the support we need. When we do speak out, our views and our words are dismissed. Our experiences of being dismissed and not treated fairly when we’re pregnant or giving birth also isn’t a great start to our motherhood journeys – so we know black mothers are more likely to have postnatal anxiety or depression.
What can healthcare professionals do to better support black mothers?
I’d definitely say listen. It seems simple, but it’s not always the case. If a mother says “I feel like my baby is coming”, “I am in excruciating pain”, “I do want painkillers”, listen, try to understand and have some empathy. Also, the way that we express ourselves may be different from the way you express yourself. Often black women’s pains get dismissed as having an attitude, or being rude – when really that’s just how we speak. We speak with much more passion, maybe more depth and maybe more volume, but it’s not necessarily a way to be rude or aggressive, it’s the way that we receive and handle pain. When a woman’s in pain, and you’re telling her stop being rude, that is makes her feel a lot worse. From there, you really lose trust between black women, black patients, and the healthcare system. So I’d say listen, try your best to unlearn racial bias, unlearn all the things you’ve learned about black people as a cultural group, and take each patient at face value.
Part of the work we’re doing is to create a black mum support fund, to match black mums to doulas. We need more care more understanding, so for black mums it shouldn’t be a luxury to have a doula to advocate on our behalf. It often feels like we can’t actually articulate or speak when we’re in pain and we’re not really being very well received or understood. We need somebody who understands the system and understands our voices as well, to speak and advocate on our behalf when we’re in pain, and to make sure things are being done properly. We’re making sure that every black mum who fits our requirements gets access to a doula, and also mental health support after giving birth.
What would you like to see in terms of improvements to support for mothers after they’ve given birth?
I’d say individual specific and tailored care, so not just ticking off a check list and then running out of the house. Actually asking the mum if she feels like she’s okay, the child’s okay, and listening to their concerns. There are so many women I know of whose children have had undiagnosed issues because there isn’t enough attention and care given to the issues raised. A lot of the time for black women, whenever we complain, it sounds like we’re moaning or exaggerating, and so it gets dismissed. We’re not necessarily treated like a human being with desires and needs, and fears and challenges.
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