What do any of us know about mental illness and its impact on breastfeeding among Black women? I know that there have been some who have talked about postpartum depression and what that is like, but what about others — that are there before the baby — and after? This is something that I have been thinking about for the past one year, roughly.
My desire to know more about this started as a result of hearing of a Black woman who I strongly believe may have something akin to bipolar disorder, if not bipolar itself. This woman also has children whom she nursed at one point, and this really made try and attempt to raise my consciousness and wonder what type of impact this may have on breastfeeding rates and how Black women navigate that. I’ve been more attuned to mental illnesses among Black women since, and have looked up articles and exposed myself to more information on it. I know that some folks view this topic quite differently and don’t necessarily believe in the idea of ‘mental illnesses,’ meaning that they believe it is relative and subjective (and OVER diagnosed), and I believe all of this is quite valid, to an extent, and understand that this is quite complex. From my understanding, I think it is fair to say that in our society here in the United States, the overarching sentiment is that the presence of a label ‘bipolar,’ ‘schizophrenia,’ ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ happens when someone displays specific characteristics, and that is when it is seen as an ‘impairment’ and a disruption in the healthy, normal functioning of an individual (and others around, inevitably). I know that there is an overwhelming amount of mental health issues that go unrecognized and unattended to for one reason or another. A big one is that mental illness is stigmatized in the general population, and even moreso in some communities. From what I have heard even from other Black folk is that it is definitely so in our community — and so plenty of us don’t seek out help for various reasons — religion, denial or whatever else.
It’s interesting that as I’m getting ready to host a webinar about Black history and breastfeeding, What Would Malcolm Do?, something jumped out at me, while reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. In the beginning of the book, Malcolm describes how the family spiraled downhill economically, emotionally and mentally after his father was murdered and the hardships took their toll on the family, and his mother ended up having a breakdown, essentially losing her mind. I’ve included the part when Malcolm discusses this, and of course it caught my eye because of his reference to nursing, although none of her children were at the nursing stage when this happened to her. Here is the scene when Malcolm goes to visit his mother, in Kalamazoo’s mental health facility, which was his last time visiting her there:
‘My last visit, when I knew that I would never come to see her again — there — was in 1952. I was twenty-seven. My brother Philbert had told me that on his last visit, she had recognized him somewhat. ‘In spots.’ He said. “But she didn’t recognize me at all. She stared at me. She didn’t know who I was. Her mind, when I tried to talk, to reach her, was somewhere else. I asked ‘Mama, do you know what day it is?’ She said, staring, ‘All the people have gone.’ I can’t describe how it felt. The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me, and loved me, didn’t know me. It was if I was trying to walk up a hill of feathers. I looked at her. I listened to her ‘talk.’ But there was nothing I could do.
In 2004 I sat in a mental health facility across the desk of a 38-year-old psychiatrist, and listened to him tell me I had major depression and panic disorder. I don’t remember all that much of the conversation on that particular day, or the subsequent ones as I attended my appointments at this place with him and the other therapists, but I do remember him asking me how I knew I was going into panic and telling him that my feet would start to sweat profusely, which is something that I never experienced outside of this. But that was only one symptom. I was restless, day and night. I couldn’t eat or sleep and I remember having a conversation with my oldest sister and telling her that it felt as if there was a nail lodged into my skull (tension). I was in a constant state of torment, which sometimes impeded my ability to walk upright correctly — I was keeled over in agony and fear, from a sense of impending doom. Also at that time, I was disassociated with things. If I touched the wall, I couldn’t feel it. If I touched anything else, I couldn’t feel it. It was surreal and I felt as if I was on some kind of ‘high’. My vision even became cloudy and I couldn’t see all that clearly — this is all something I told the doctor at the urgent care clinic when I finally went in, before he told me what I was experiencing wasn’t physical, but mental. The only way I knew I needed to eat at least something was to look at the way the veins in my eyes appeared, which would give me an indicator that I needed to put something in my mouth to try and avert low blood sugar. Other times I just wept. This all went on for a while. I also remember the psychiatrist telling me that he wanted to up the dosage of medications I was on at the time, prescribed by a different doctor I had seen just before him, when I was admitted to a emotional health facility, where I spent a few days.
Even though for a few years before this point I had begun struggling with depression and I’ve always been pretty anxious, though never to the extent I was at this time, I know that the ‘major’ part of this diagnosis stemmed from life circumstances — this all built up. Among various things that have gone on in my life and around this time, the greatest downfall happened about just over one year before all of this when my mother, at the age of 52, had a brain stem stroke, and was placed on life support. This was all very unexpected and over the next 11 days that she lived, myself and my sisters fought an incredible battle for her life — and lost. This was the most devastating moment of my life, and as you could imagine there were a host of complications that came along with this — including severe anxiety and panic that lingered. But I’ll tell you that that is not all that was happening at the time. Immediately before my mom’s death (while I was out of state visiting her in the hospital) I was told my position as a travel sales agent had been eliminated because of the toll the effects of September 11th, took on the airline industry. Immediately after my mom’s death, my marriage took a severe nosedive, but believe it or not exactly right before any of these things happened, I was on the road to becoming a mother, was so excited about it and was looking forward to being pregnant. I’ve been thinking back on this time and wonder if I had actually gotten pregnant back then and had given birth during this very difficult period of depression, hopelessness, disassociation, what type of impact would that have had on my breastfeeding relationship? Even though I definitely wasn’t the very vocal advocate I am now about it, and even though I planned on breastfeeding, I absolutely believe that my state would have had an impact (or ramifications) on what first foods my newborn would have received. And this was with having professional intervention. Who only knows what the (hypothetical) picture would look like otherwise?
I haven’t been on any medication in a number of years, but I have been to therapy and counseling a points, which have been helpful. And over the past five years or so, I have been able to largely manage depression through the practice of meditation, which has significantly changed my life. Major depression isn’t even something I can fathom as being something that has anything to do with me, except as it relates to one part of my life. I still have underlying issues of anxiety, which I continue to work on. But that’s my story. What about others and theirs?
In the video below, I share some general thoughts about wanting to know more about mental illness and Black breastfeeding. Other than a few highlights about postpartum depression I have not really found anything, as far as scholarship, that discusses the effect of other serious mental illness among Black women and how this could (or, maybe even could not) impact our rates. I’m not surprised by this absence, given the fact that there hardly exists any scientific data about Black breastfeeding at all, so it is not surprising that the combined topic of mental health is absent. But no one wants to talk about it anywhere. I don’t hear anyone discussing it in other places, especially even among ourselves and what bothers me is that I know it is out there. I also know that being born a Black woman in this society is itself a predisposition to these; facing racism and sexism and more on a consistent basis, is more often the cause of — however you choose to label or explain — mental illnesses — and their consequences.
I don’t think it’s enough to talk about breastfeeding in a linear fashion — just the desire to see an increase in our numbers. That has the potential, and probably does, in my mind, paint everyone with the same brush. I also think it feeds into the strong Black woman myth; wanting to increase the numbers of Black women who breastfeed to increase our health and wellness becomes more complicated, when not everyone who can potentially breastfeed is healthy and well. And this is exactly why, for me, I’m interested in starting a conversation about these complexities, to increase my knowledge and understanding. I think learning about the many facets of breastfeeding and people, and how it is experienced in these different contexts provides the opportunity to understand and to better support them. These are just some of my early thoughts about it. I would be grateful if you shared some of yours.
I would be interested in talking to people of the African diaspora who have been diagnosed or not diagnosed with a mental illness or other mental health issue — those who struggle with, or who do not struggle with this area and if you believe your breastfeeding relationship is impacted by this or how you were able to navigate this area. If you would like to talk about it, then please contact me. I would love to highlight your story on this blog either anonymously or non-anonymously.
[Update]: I decided to host a blog carnival on here titled Black Breastfeeding and Mental Illness: Struggling With & Surviving. You can read about it and submit your story.
The courage to share this part of my life comes from others before me and around me, who have strengthened me through their own examples of openness. Queen Ifama Uchefuna, Harriet Jacobs, Joey R, first come to my mind, though there are others. I also am inspired to lead with love through expression and sharing, and hope that doing so will help strengthen and/or encourage others, in helping to construct or maintain a path towards healing.