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Ideastream Public Media investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health.

Kent State program that focuses on traumatic stress to reduce Black infant mortality receives a major grant

Black mom and baby
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A new program is trying to reduce stress in expectant Black mothers to try to chip away at the high African American infant mortality rate in Northeast Ohio. High levels of stress during a pregnancy can lead to complications, according to research.

For many years, Black babies have been 3 to 5 times more likely to die in their first year of life than white babies across Northeast Ohio. A Kent State University program recently received a $100,000 grant to try to reduce this disparity.

The program, Spirit of Motherhood, screens for and treats post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in African-American expectant mothers, and provides them with coping strategies and education on parenting, said Angela Neal-Barnett, founder of the program and psychology professor at Kent State.

Barnett started the program in 2021 after finding through years of research that many local women were experiencing PTSD - and did not realize it.

“Our goal was to let people know – you are enough. This has a name, and we can reduce this in ways [so] that the life that you want for yourself, and the life that you want for your child, is obtainable,” Barnett said.

PTSD and chronic stress can spike cortisol stress hormones in expectant mothers, which studies show can lead to pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia and pre-term births, Barnett said.

Whether a baby is carried to term is a major indicator of whether the infant will survive its first year of life, she said.

“What traumatic stress does to a Black woman’s body … that’s how it relates to infant mortality. If we can reduce that, we can reduce what’s happening internally,” Barnett said.
The program is geared to African American moms in Northeast Ohio to specifically target reducing the racial disparities in infant mortality.

While mothers of all races can face hardship and stress during pregnancy, Black moms experience additional trauma from dealing with racism, she added.

For example, some Black women experience discrimination at their doctor’s appointments, Barnett said. One mom Barnett worked with reported that medical staff referred to her husband as her ‘baby daddy,’ Barnett said.

“We know that racism is trauma,” she said.

Using words and music to cope with trauma

Once a participant is diagnosed with PTSD, she works with a trained specialist to address her symptoms through writing about the trauma – formally known as written exposure therapy, one of the most common evidence-based treatments for PTSD, Barnett said.

Those who do not meet the criteria for PTSD are referred to a different session that focuses on managing anxiety and stress, she added.

Participants also work with a behavioral specialist to learn parenting strategies while dealing with stress.

“We talk about listening skills, and what you say - and what the child hears. We talk about getting frustrated with your child, and … ways to positively reinforce your child,” Barnett said.

If the participant moms have children already, they can bring them along, where they, too, will learn to regulate their emotions and cope with stress while their mom is in a session, Barnett added.

The children engage in musical intervention, and at the end of the session, the kids and moms reunite and do the songs and dances together.

“Their parents are practicing these skills with them,” Barnett said. “We are connecting dots that reduce traumatic stress, that reduce toxic stress, that reduces chronic stress that starts early for Black females. Perhaps we’re making a difference for the next generations.”

Barnett and her team are collecting research during the sessions, and they follow up with the moms and children after the program is completed to measure the impact it has made. She hopes the data will provide key information on how maternal mental health influences infant mortality, and can eventually inform policy on maternal health best practices.

“We’re seeing major, major reduction in symptoms. They’re reporting that it’s been therapeutic for them, that it’s made a difference, that they have a better understanding of their journey,” Barnett said.

Spirit of Motherhood recently received a $100,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, which will allow the program to reach more mothers in the Cleveland, Akron and Canton areas and hire additional staff.

Seven women have completed the program already, and the grant from Anthem will allow them to accept up to 20 additional mothers, Barnett said.

Those interested in the program can contact Keaton Somerville at ksomerv5@kent.edu or Diane Robinson at drobin57@kent.edu, or call or text 330-552-8959.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.