HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Jessica Keaton didn't realize she was suffering from postpartum depression until just a few years ago. She became pregnant with her daughter in 2016 after moving to Houston from California and remembers how lonely the experience felt without her family, even with her partner by her side.
"It was rough. It was really, really rough," Keaton said. "I caught myself going through this downward spiral. I just didn't want to talk to anybody. I didn't want to look at anybody. I just wanted to be by myself."
It took Keaton a while to reach out for help or even acknowledge what she was going through. She says the lack of care she received with an OBGYN contributed to her struggle. What helped was switching to a doula, who validated her concerns and supported her through that difficult time.
"I remember telling the doctor that I wanted to have a water birth, and he pretty much laughed in my face. He told me that my baby was going to die and that I was going to die," said Keaton. "Sometimes, as a Black woman, we have this issue of masking. If we are depressed, we feel like we have to be a strong Black woman. We don't feel like we get to have these types of emotions."
Just a few months ago, she turned to the Shades of Blue Project, a local nonprofit organization focused on improving maternal mental health. They provide a myriad of services, including online support groups, as well as a free diapers and wipes program. The founder, Kay Matthews, started the group out of passion from her own personal experience.
"I delivered my daughter stillborn, and I struggled after giving birth. No one was tying infant loss into maternal mental health complications. I wasn't given a postpartum period, and I had to kind of take control of that myself," Matthews said. "I made a vow to myself during my own recovery that when I did get on the flip side of what was happening, that I would help other folks have at least a conversation about it and acknowledge the signs."
Unfortunately, these experiences are not unique. According to Matthews, one in seven white women will experience maternal mental health complications. That number increases for women of color to one in four, who are less likely to be diagnosed or treated. She says suicide rates also increase in the first year of a mother's postpartum period.
"When you have something untreated, I always say it's like an open wound. If there's an open wound and it's not treated properly, it does not heal properly," said Matthews. "Sometimes we, as Black women, view help in the negative because we don't know if, one, folks are going to be after to help us. Two, if there are going to be consequences for asking for help, like having CPS being called."
This issue is one part of our country's maternal health crisis highlighted in Aftershock, a new documentary by ABC News Studios and the Onyx Collective, now streaming on Hulu. The film follows two Black families after losing their loved ones to childbirth complications, as they fight for meaningful change in our country's healthcare system.
The 2021 March of Dimes Report Card, which grades states on the health of mothers and infants nationwide, gave Texas a D grade and Harris County an F due to high rates of preterm births, infant deaths, inadequate prenatal care, social vulnerability factors, and state policies.
Data from the CDC shows that in 2020, there was an average of 54.85 deaths per 100,000 live births in Harris County, greater than 42.1 in Texas and 23.8 nationwide. When we narrow down the data to Black mothers, Harris County's number shoots up to 106.01.
"We really need to hold our city accountable. How can we really enact effective change right now, not five years from now, like right now? What can our officials be doing? What can our community be doing? What can our doctors and hospital systems do right now to make things better for birthing individuals of color?" said Matthews.
On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved a $7.75 million program to help combat maternal and infant mortality, with a focus on Black mothers. It will pair about 300 women with community health workers to provide better access to prenatal and postpartum care. The announcement falls during Black Maternal Mental Health Week, which runs from July 19th to the 25th every year.
Matthews says this is a start in addressing the issue, but hopes to see efforts grow around improving maternal health. Her organization currently serves 24 other states out of Texas, and their goal is to expand that reach even further.
"Ten years from now, I don't want there to be a need for Black Maternal Mental Health Week. Addressing Black maternal mental health is mandatory. It's not optional. We cannot continue knowing there is a certain underserved population being affected by something and not do anything about it," she said.
Keaton now has two children with her partner, after giving birth to her son five months old. She now works as a postpartum doula, hoping to prevent others from going through what she experienced.
"Knowing what I know now, I would tell my younger self to trust my intuition. I am strong. I am one tough cookie. I got this. Use my resources, communicate what I'm feeling to my husband and my doula," Keaton said. "You get so much support when you're pregnant. But I feel like that all goes away postpartum. What I didn't know back then, I want to be able to provide these tools to other moms."
For more information about the Shades of Blue Project, head over to their website.
Aftershock can be streamed on Hulu in the U.S., Star+ in Latin America, and Disney+ in all other territories. For more information about the film, click here.
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