Women of color are dying across the U.S. for the simple crime of wanting to be a mother. For most people pursuing a family, pregnancy news is a joyful occasion, but for black and Indigenous women, this news is increasingly tinged with fear. Black women are 2.6 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth complications than white women (with American Indian and Alaska Native women twice as likely to die). To make matters worse, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is the highest of any developed nation in the entire world.
Data shows this is a full-blown maternal crisis, and yet it can often feel as though nothing is being done to stop women from dying. The recent death of Tori Bowie further highlighted the dangerously insufficient care given to Black mothers in the U.S. Her death, along with stories from Serena Williams and Beyonce, who both experienced dangerous pregnancy complications, indicates just how prevalent this issue is for women of color at all socioeconomic levels. Despite the fact that 84% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, little legislation has been brought forward at the state level. The maternal mortality issue should be receiving far more attention than it has been so let’s dive into the racial disparities in our current maternal health system and discuss what you can do to help fight this crisis.
D’Andra Willis, of the Black-centered reproductive justice group the Afiya Center, told NBC News, “Maternal mortality for Black women has nothing to do with health or economic status. You could be the richest or the poorest, Black women are still three to five times more likely to die in childbirth than any poor white woman.” According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, even when education and income were factored in, racial disparities in health outcomes persisted for Black women. In fact, the rate of pregnancy-related deaths for college-educated Black women is more than five times higher than it is for college-educated white women, shining a light on the racism at the heart of this issue.
Systemic racism has not only affected how doctors see, treat, and listen to women of color but has also created a socioeconomic system that leads to a lack of care for many. Women of reproductive age in the U.S. are significantly more likely to struggle to pay their medical bills than women in other developed countries, with Hispanic women being the most likely to be uninsured. This leads to skipped appointments, delayed care, and improperly managing chronic conditions due to costs. Medical expenses are made more detrimental by the fact that women of color are paid less than men and white women. This financial burden, combined with the implicit racial bias found among medical professionals, leads to the lack of equitable care for women of color and directly contributes to preventable deaths.
What is being done?
Several states have passed legislation addressing various health disparities. However, these pieces of legislation vary wildly depending on the state and very few of them specifically address racial disparities. From simply requesting studies on racial information to actually implementing required implicit bias training for all nursing schools, there has been an extremely uneven approach to the issue of racial disparities in maternal care. The California Momnibus Act stands out as one of the only state-level bills passed with the express goal of closing existing racial gaps in maternal and infant mortality rates. From expanding post-partum services to adding doula services to covered state care, the Act even provides cash assistance for low-income pregnant women and their families.
At the federal level, the Black Maternal Health Momnibus legislative package was reintroduced to Congress in May 2023. This package features 13 different bills that address different elements of the black maternity crisis. Senator Cory Booker, one of the representatives responsible for sponsoring the package, described the legislation as “a critical step towards saving lives, ending disparities in health care and outcomes, and ensuring our health care system treats all moms with the care and dignity they deserve regardless of their race or circumstance.” The bills mandate extending nutrition programs like WIC, creating grants for mental health care, and carving out dedicated funding for organizations working on the front lines of maternal care. You can track the progress of this package through The Century Foundation.
What can you do to help
A good way to advocate on behalf of mothers of color is by calling or writing your state and federal representatives to voice your support for legislation geared towards stopping racial disparities in maternal healthcare. You can also call or write your representative’s office to voice support for specific legislation such as the Black Maternal Health Momnibus package. Without a clear and constant push from constituents, it is too easy for government representatives to let issues go unchanged. So, in addition to voting for candidates that prioritize women’s health and acknowledge racial disparities, it is important for all of us to keep the momentum going with our elected officials. It is ultimately up to all of us to push for, track, and advocate on behalf of legislation that might help save women’s lives.
Beyond representatives and legislation, there are many non-profit organizations and foundations working to combat the maternal mortality crisis. These organizations can always use donations, volunteers, event attendees, or even a social media share to help get their messaging and resources out to people who might need them. If you’re not sure where to start, the U.S. House of Representatives Black Maternal Health Caucus has an informative list of nine organizations working to save Black mothers. Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit organization, also has a detailed Black Maternal Health Resource List that includes data, suggested readings, and even policy recommendations to help inform your own advocacy.
What To Do When Your Work Doesn’t Offer Mental Health Days
Though they haven’t always been traditionally recognized in the workplace, we know now that mental health days are just as important as sick days. As the importance of mental health, and protecting our mental health, becomes more recognized, the truth about how many people are actually struggling is becoming increasingly prevalent.
Mental Health America’s 2023 State of Mental Health in America survey found that around 50 million Americans are suffering from a mental health issue, though more than half of those haven’t received any treatment. Though there is a slew of reasons why that may be, from stigma about speaking out to a lack of local mental health care, one of the big reasons that all too many people just don’t have the time to take care of themselves is due to work commitments.
But what do you do if you need to take some time to yourself to keep your mental health in check, but your workplace doesn’t recognize mental health or wellness days? Well, there are a few ways to make sure you’re getting the time you need, because taking care of yourself should always be your number one priority.
Take a mental health moment
If your workplace doesn’t offer full days off to allow you to look after your mental health, try taking a mental health moment instead. This can be any amount of time during the day when you take a step back from work and focus on yourself. For some people, doing something that makes you happy in your lunch hour, like a workout or a walk, may be enough to help you feel more balanced — as you should always take the time you’re entitled to during the day! Radio DJ Clara Amfo even suggested to British Vogue dividing your lunch hour into four sections and doing something productive each 15 minutes.
Some companies may be more willing to grant you an afternoon off to take care of yourself rather than a full day, which may be just enough time to help melt away any stress. Equally, this time may be even better done outside the workday. “We can fit a mental health day into a smaller piece that works for us. When we finish work, we can take an hour to ourselves to journal. Or maybe on a day off or when we can’t sleep, we get on the phone with a close friend and talk about the perils of the world, as well as our shared, joyful memories from childhood,” Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez told InStyle. “No matter what our life is looking like, we still squeeze in time for ourselves.”
Know your rights
If you work for a larger company, you may have more rights when it comes to mental health than you realize. “If your employer has 50 or more employees or you’re under federal contract, you are protected by federal labor and anti-discrimination laws that prevent your employer from penalizing you for taking time off for … mental health,” Choosing Therapy’s Laura Handrick told Mental Health First Aid. So do your research! If your company isn’t offering mental health days and you know you should be entitled to them, take your request to HR and be prepared to back yourself up with your findings. It may even be that a sick day can be used as a mental health or wellness day.
If you’re worried about being penalized for asking for time off when you maybe aren’t showing physical signs of being unwell, dispel that stigma right now. It may be that your company is a little behind the times when it comes to mental health care but will be willing to grant your request if you’re clear about what you need, it’s just that their policies haven’t yet been updated. And how good would it feel to be the one who instigated such an important change? “From a company perspective, it is more straightforward to provide support to those whose needs are clear. And, through disclosure, employers can be better able to make adjustments and offer support,” HR director at Unum UK, Liz Walker, shared with Women’s Health.
Speak openly about your mental health (if you feel comfortable)
While we as a society are getting better about speaking openly about our mental health, it’s still not recognized in all workplaces. If your workplace is steadfast in refusing to offer mental health days, by opening up about your struggles with your co-workers, you may find they’re going through the same thing as you. Banding together to implement change could be the quickest and most impactful way of showing your employer how important mental health days really are.
You may also find that speaking to your colleagues makes being at work a little more bearable too, as Liz Walker recommended potentially creating a mental health group to provide a safe space for those struggling. “This can be an excellent support system, as taking time out to chat to someone impartial can be a great remedy if you’re struggling emotionally, and there doesn’t have to be fuss, formality or even appointments,” she told Women’s Health.
As psychologist Heather Lyons shared with Real Simple, speaking candidly with a member of HR could also prove to be beneficial in a number of ways. They may be able to take the matter higher if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone in a position of power, or might have the ability to offer some personalized tips on how best to approach asking for a mental health day if you feel confident asking yourself.
Work out why you think you need a day off
Before requesting a mental health day, it’s important to work out why you think you need one. If work is your main cause of stress and anxiety, taking a day off work to get back in touch with yourself may do wonders, but it’s worth seriously thinking about if that’s what you actually need or if something more substantial would be more useful. For example, if you’re finding yourself stressed because of financial or family issues away from the workplace, a day off, particularly if you won’t get paid for it, may not actually be too helpful. You may even find that being at work is a better distraction from such issues and offers you important social interaction with your co-workers. In this case, you may find it more useful to try something more specifically targeted at your mental health issues, like therapy sessions.
If you do decide to do more to protect your mental health than just a day away from the office, scheduling regular therapy sessions during work time may feel like a more legitimate reason to take time off and may make you feel less guilty about asking for your mental health time. Equally, if going to work really does help you feel more balanced, it could be something you do in your free time instead.
Make it hard for your employer to deny you a mental health day
If you’ve decided a mental health day really would be beneficial to you, make it as hard as you can for your employer to deny your request. Of course, in an ideal world, all employers would do whatever they could to prioritize their employees’ mental health, but if yours is dragging their feet, the harder you make it for them to turn you down with a legitimate reason, the more likely you are to get the time off you need.
One of the best ways you can do this is by setting up a plan for what would happen while you’re away. If you work shifts, ask your co-workers before you speak to your boss who would be able to cover your hours, or if you work more regular hours, ask your fellow employees if you could pass off one piece of work to a handful of people for a little while. “You need to be able to explain how you plan to delegate your work, or how you’re able to get your work done before and after that mental health day so there’s no delay,” career consultant Latesha Byrd suggested to Forge. If there’s still no legitimate reason for your day off to be denied when you’re in desperate need of some time to balance yourself, it may be time to escalate the issue even higher to create real change.