Black Maternal & Mental Health Summit Highlights the Urgency for Policy and Practice Change

In July, I had the chance to attend the Black Maternal & Mental Health Summit hosted by the Shades of Blue Project. Founder Kay Matthews established Shades of Blue in 2013 after the loss of her stillborn daughter. With worsening maternal morbidity rates in the United States, Kay has turned to advocacy as a way to turn her pain into passion and purpose. Her personal experience and the experiences of many others led her to call for new attention to the maternal mental health systems unable to support the specific needs of Black women. The trailblazer’s work has extended well beyond her hometown of Houston, TX to the nationally-recognized Black Maternal Mental Health Week that began in 2018 and is celebrated each year from July 19-25.

The Shades of Blue Project seeks to “change the way women of color are currently being diagnosed and treated after giving birth and experiencing any adverse maternal mental health outcomes.” They envision their “Acknowledge, Respect, and Support” project will help growing numbers of healthcare professionals and healthcare systems make meaningful changes in their engagement with patients. An important outgrowth of the project is the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method, which trains mental health and birthing professionals compassion care methods and helps them to understand and identify unique stressors faced by Black women and other communities of color that can impact mental health. The I.N.S.P.I.RE Method can now be taken in collaboration with the Commonsense Childbirth Training Institute owned by renowned midwife, Jennie Joseph, where trained participants can earn a certificate as a Certified Maternal Mental Health Support Specialist.

Supporting more effective engagement between health care professionals and their patients is important to not only improving care but addressing health equity. Research points to the ways racism impacts health care experiences, including maternal health among Black women. Feelings of disrespect or dismissal by healthcare professionals can extend beyond perinatal care to mothers’ experiences accessing care for their children. A recent study by Urban Institute from the Health Reform Monitoring Survey found that more than 1 in 8 parents reported that they had been treated unfairly in health care settings for a variety of reasons including race, ethnicity, insurance type, and income. Black parents were nearly twice as likely to report unfair treatment than white parents.

The BMMHW 2023 summit was filled with bright colors, warmth, joy, and deep conversations. The keynote session from Day 1 was titled “Unleash Your DOPENESS” and was led by creator of the Nap Bar, Khaliah Guillory. The keynote session from Day 2 was titled “Transgenerational Resiliences: From Surviving to Thriving” by Dr. Sayida Peprah-Wilson. Each session was filled with empowering tidbits that helped uplift Birth workers, mental health professionals, researchers, medical students, and other participants.

Shades of Blue Project also has an eye toward policy change to improve practice, championing recognition for Black Maternal Mental Health Week. They have helped to advance some federal policy opportunities for Black maternal and mental health, such as The Moms Matter Act, which was reintroduced this year and will help to establish a Maternal Mental Health Equity Grant Program and provide funding to grow and diversity of the maternal mental and behavioral health care workforce. This kind of support to the health infrastructure reinforces policy changes in Medicaid, such as postpartum extension, by boosting care quality and reach. In addition to the Moms Matters Act, the Shades of Blue Project has proposed the Black Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week Resolutions in previous sessions which had a total of 78 co-sponsorships.

Last week, in honor of HHS’ Maternal Health Day of Action, the White House announced new initiatives to help fund maternal mental health. They also announced funding in support of expanding and diversifying the maternal mental health workforce, increasing access to maternal health services, supporting parents and families, and investing in maternal health research. The National Maternal Mental Health Task Force officially launched on September 27th. This Task Force was created when the TRIUMPH for New Moms Act was passed which was spearheaded by the Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health. The goal of the Task Force is to identify, evaluate, and make recommendations to coordinate and improve activities related to maternal mental health and substance use disorders.

Many of these policy wins would not be able to pass without the tireless efforts of community-based organizations such as the Shades of Blue Project. To learn more about the Shades of Blue Project, please visit their website.

​​Editor’s note: To maintain accuracy, Georgetown CCF uses the term “women” when referencing statute, regulations, research, or other data sources that use the term “women” to define or count people who are pregnant or give birth. Where possible, we use more inclusive terms in recognition that not all individuals who become pregnant and give birth identify as women.

Tanesha Mondestin is a Research Associate at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.