The maternal mortality rate for black women in Virginia is more than two times higher than the maternal mortality rates for white women and both are rising.
In response to the increase, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey held a listening session Thursday evening at the Community Access Network on 5th Street.
The visit to Lynchburg comes after stops in Hampton and Annandale. Northam plans to continue meeting with communities in Colonial Heights, Woodbridge and Portsmouth next week followed by Danville, Abingdon, Richmond and Winchester later in October.
The listening sessions come four months after Northam announced his goal to eliminate the racial disparity in the maternal mortality rate in Virginia by 2025.
Carey said the goal of the sessions is not to hear from him but rather for him to listen to the thoughts of the 50 people in attendance at the Community Access Network.
He said the governor’s office has a five-year strategic plan to figure out how to eliminate the high mortality rates.
“We want to start where we need to start and that’s with the experience of individuals in the community,” he said. “Before we try to solve the problem, we need to hear the problem.”
Traci DeShazor, Virginia’s deputy secretary for the commonwealth and governor’s director of African American outreach, spoke of “weathering” chronic stress associated with the combined effects of poverty, racial discrimination and maternal deprivation.
She said it is this that causes the health of black women to deteriorate particularly rapidly leading to poorer outcomes.
She said there are three initial focus areas for maternal health including care settings, coverage and community-based services.
Women shared stories of miscarriages, depression, homebirths, advanced maternal age, the risks of having a child as black women and the mistreatment of providers.
“It takes all of us to be a part of the conversation,” DeShazor said. “One woman’s story is not another woman’s story.”
Local nonprofit, The Motherhood Collective (TMC) partnered with the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to host the panel discussion and bring women together to share their stories of maternal mental health.
TMC serves hundreds of women per month in person through walks, support groups, playgroups and panel discussions with healthcare providers. After TMC heard about the proposed listening sessions earlier this summer, it reached out to the governor’s office to get involved.
“This cannot be a discussion of those on the top speaking about what they see the problems as this has to be a community conversation,” Lauren Barnes, program director for TMC, said. “This has to be women who have seen the disparities, who have seen the problems, have experienced poor outcomes, who have felt alone, who have felt not listened to. This is not a provider bashing session, this is a communication session.”
Barnes said maternal mental health is something she and her team are passionate about and she is pleased state administration is acknowledging the issue specifically when it comes to black women dying in childbirth.
“The rates are so significantly higher,” she said before the listening session. “It’s horrific and should be shameful to all of us. It’s appalling and it has to end.”
Brittney George, an advocate for women struggling with postpartum depression and licensed counselor with TMC, said the biggest barriers for women during pregnancy are access and awareness.
“Either women don’t know where the help is or don’t have the ability to get to the help,” she said. “Providers tend to work in their own universes and no one seeks to work together. And The Motherhood Collective works to create that collaborative effort and supportive network for women. No competition should exist in healthcare.”
Barnes said she was proud of the state for listening to women about the problem instead of rolling out their decisions right away.
Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.