LAWRENCE — Amittia Parker worked for 10 years as an infant and early-childhood mental health consultant serving families with children with challenging behaviors. She saw how the system consistently focused on the problems of Black mothers, making assumptions about why they experienced mental health challenges and often blaming them for negative mental health outcomes for their children without regard for their cultural experiences and social conditions, furthering anti-Black bias and racism.
As a doctoral student in the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, she saw the research also rarely considered the strengths and cultural experiences Black mothers possessed.
“I was drawn to this topic being a Black mother and working as a mental health consultant for 10 years with Black and Brown communities,” Parker said. “Black women experience mental health issues at disproportionate rates but don’t get services at the same rates as others. If people are not accessing services, why not? When people are struggling, they ought to be able to get help. There are issues of access and issues of choice we need to understand better if we want to help Black women.”
In her article, published in the journal Infant Mental Health, Parker outlines how the mental health field has long been deficit-focused, especially with Black mothers, and suggests an Afrocentric approach, including specific recommendations for cultural approaches to advance infant mental health, by considering culture in research, policy and practice.
“I’m making the argument that it’s time to ask different questions. The literature says African-Americans are struggling with their mental health and they are to blame,” Parker said. “In the literature, they’re linking maternal mental health with children’s mental health. That’s promoting a negative narrative.”
The default recommendation when Black mothers do experience mental health challenges is therapy for the individual. When formal services are promoted as the best and only option to address mental health challenges of any kind, and choosing to speak with family, friends, spiritual leaders or other methods are problematized, it is culturally oppressive. Rarely does the field, which is predominantly white, consider societal and structural issues that contribute to mental health such as stressors including racism, discrimination and others, or why mothers might not access formal mental health services, including past negative experiences, financial challenges, lack of insurance or even location of service providers, Parker said. To change that, she makes three recommendations for practice, research and policy:
- Acknowledge the role of cultural oppression
- Fight against political, economic and cultural oppression
- Build upon the strengths of the community.
“I want this paper to be one that will help all of us — social workers, educators, policymakers, psychologists, psychiatrists — ask, 'How have I contributed to this situation?' I think that’s a part a lot of us struggle with,” Parker said. “We’re looking at the negatives on the individual level, but nobody is looking at the negatives on the systemic level. There’s more to the story that we’re not telling.”
In terms of policy, Parker wrote, those in positions of power could help by promoting policies that advance the interests of Black families and expose those that do not. In practice, implementing a strengths perspective and recognizing how Black mothers have survived and thrived under oppression could be a first step to more effectively serving individuals and families. Researchers could contribute by applying an Afrocentric perspective to study of maternal mental health and contextual factors, Parker said.
Above all, acknowledging oppression and cultural experiences would go a long way in addressing Black maternal mental health, especially during a pandemic, when systemic inequities are being exposed by the disproportionate negative effects it has had on communities of color.
“We’re facing a racism and mental health pandemic also. I see and experience anxiety around interacting with people, and it is related to COVID and racism; there is a ton of trauma happening in communities of color,” Parker said. “We have to be able to learn and listen. We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of mental health, but we can take lessons from the past and do better.”
Photo: Amittia Parker, doctoral student in social welfare at the University of Kansas.