What do you know about mental illness and its impact on Black breastfeeding? If you’re like me, then it isn’t much. Every once in a while someone, somewhere, will highlight a story on postpartum depression to allow us to see what women go through. But even those are few and far between.
What has been on my mind is that although there is a growing increase in the amount of information on breastfeeding, there aren’t many conversations on how this can be complicated by the presence of a mental health issue. Take depression, for example. It is widely known that many people who have struggled or are continuing to struggle with and/or are survivors of depression are generally on medications. If a woman is on one, two or even more prescriptions, how would this impact her — milk — its supply and otherwise? I know that this is a very rudimentary and general example, since there are many other complications. How is her self-image impacted on a larger scale from someone who doesn’t have depression? We know that self-image is one reason that impacts breastfeeding. Also, what about the links to other illnesses that depression generally supports such as anxiety? Monetary reasons for being with or without medication? Hospitalization? The additional complications of living in a society with a stigma on mental illness? The stigma among Black people? The ‘strong Black woman’ myth? Not being able to get out of bed? The list literally goes on and on.
In my own quest for knowledge it has only been over the past year or so is when I began to really question the area. This happened as a result of hearing about a Black woman who struggled with a severe mental illness, and that led to me wanting to not only find out more about the disorder, but wonder how this can complicate a breastfeeding relationship. These days there has been much talk about African American breastfeeding. More and more, Black lactation advocates, activists and our allies are working to promote this tradition among Black women who, according to various scholarly journals and individual accounts have the lowest rates of initiation and duration among any group in this country. The conversations often speak to the large gap in breastfeeding rates in the overall society, and where Black women are said to land. This, of course, is compiled with having one of the most complicated historical pasts among any of them means this makes sense. What is discouraging is that this past has built a legacy that means Black women are to be ‘strong’ and not in need of outside intervention, including communal support and are to take on everything by ourselves. When I came across an article titled ‘5 Ways the Word ‘Strong’ Is Used Against Black Women,‘ it is apparent how this idea bleeds over into the arena of mental illness and mental health. That the author points out that the complications from this idea are multi-faceted and include ‘not needing support, supporting everyone else, making the best out of unfair circumstances, being strong all the time and finally that strong Black women are undesirable partners, sounds like it is a familiar pattern in the lengthy trajectory of being a Black woman. Yet, it is a myth. And this legacy means that no one really wants to talk about it so we continue to hide and suffer in silence.
I know that some folks view this topic quite differently. Many don’t necessarily believe in the idea of mental ‘illnesses’ — meaning that they believe the health of someone depends on how society responds to these characteristics and how we react to them, accepting these as ‘different’ or not. They believe that these are too often overstated and even OVER diagnosed, and I believe all of this is quite valid, to an extent. But it’s definitely fair to say that the overarching sentiment I think many of us can agree upon, is when the presence of a label (or behavior of) ‘bipolar,’ ‘schizophrenia,’ ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ happens when someone displays specific characteristics, and that can interrupt the functioning of an individual in our culturally constructed space — meaning it calls attention. I won’t claim or even pretend to be an expert on the subject at hand; but I do know that what is missing in the larger conversation is that this area is too often overlooked. In many cases it is outright ignored. It isn’t enough to talk about the desire to attach an infant to a woman’s breast in this tradition we call ‘breastfeeding,’ without working towards a more thorough understanding. Wanting to increase the numbers of Black women who breastfeed to increase our health and wellness becomes much more complicated when not everyone who can potentially breastfeed may be healthy and well.
In my work, one thing I emphasize is to ‘zoom out’ and look at the whole woman. In anthropology we call this ‘holism’. That is, taking into account that community, society, biology, history, current surroundings and various other aspects all play a role in our strive towards a greater goal. Of course this isn’t exclusive to anthropology, but I hope that this blog carnival helps to start conversations on this area where they have not have existed before. Or, that it will help to continue others. Wherever we are these insights will undoubtedly assist in offering a greater level of understanding and appreciation of breastfeeding, allowing us to refocus on Black women and mental health to see to see the different accounts of struggling with and surviving.
Acquanda Y. Stanford is a critical Black feminist anthropologist, doula and a Certified Lactation Educator. She is also a PhD student of sociocultural anthropology, researching breastfeeding among people of African descent in the U.S. Follow her on Twitter.