Written by: Jennifer Novak, ZERO TO THREE
The period following childbirth can be challenging for many new mothers, particularly within military families. Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), encompassing conditions like postpartum depression (PPD), postpartum anxiety (PPA), and postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, often pose significant mental health hurdles during this vulnerable time for families. When factoring in race and ethnicity within military communities, these challenges take on additional nuance.
Military families grapple with unique stressors owing to the nature of military life. Relocations, prolonged separations due to deployments, and the day-to-day stress of military life can exacerbate feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression among new mothers. While for many new birthing persons, these feelings are passing, for others the symptoms are severe, debilitating, and not easily resolved.
Women of color experience postpartum mood and anxiety disorders at higher rates than their white counterparts. The intersection of race and ethnicity impacts prevalence and how the disorders are manifested and treatment-seeking behavior concerning postpartum mood disorders within military families. Disparities in mental health outcomes stem from numerous factors such as socioeconomic differences, experiences of discrimination, disproportionate access to quality healthcare, and cultural stigma around mental health issues.
In the military context, these challenges can become further complicated. Military culture’s value for toughness versus weakness can impact help-seeking out of fear of being perceived as weak or if a dependent spouse/partner has concerns that admitting mental health problems might reflect poorly on their active-duty partner. Minority servicewomen might encounter added stressors like racial discrimination within the military community or limited access to culturally responsive mental health support. Access to adequate care can be hindered, particularly for families stationed in remote areas or those facing logistical barriers due to deployments or frequent relocations.
Cultural perceptions of mental health within diverse ethnic groups also impact the management of postpartum mood disorders. Some cultures associate stigma with seeking help for mental health concerns, leading to underreporting or delayed treatment. Language barriers exacerbate communication challenges with military healthcare providers, risking access to appropriate care and support.
Tailoring mental health services to address the specific needs, beliefs, and practices of diverse communities within the military is crucial. This involves offering linguistically and culturally appropriate resources, establishing support networks and groups that represent cultural affinity or acknowledge cultural differences, and training providers to comprehend and address the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and postpartum mental health. Additionally, raising awareness and educating civilian communities and their providers with high numbers of military families about the impact of military culture, race, and ethnicity on postpartum mood disorders is essential. Creating support networks for not only professionals but also peers that encourage open dialogues in safe spaces and trusted relationships leads to reducing stigma, and normalizing help-seeking behaviors for mental health concerns can facilitate early intervention and support for vulnerable individuals.
Professionals supporting military families can learn more about these concerns by reviewing resources on the experiences of minority families and PMADs and the health disparities related to the experience of PMADs in these groups. Being informed and embracing a position of cultural humility will maximize the role of the provider in offering screening, support, and relevant referrals to those families identified as experiencing PMADs.
United States Government Accountability Office (2022). “DEFENSE HEALTH CARE-Prevalence of and Efforts to Screen and Treat Mental Health Conditions in Prenatal and Postpartum TRICARE Beneficiaries.” Retrieved from: https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105136.pdf
Cezair, K. (2022). “The Coming Black Maternal Mental Health Crisis.” O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Retrieved from: https://oneill.law.georgetown.edu/the-coming-black-maternal-mental-healthcrisis/#:~:text=PMADs%20occur%20during%20and%20after,higher%20than%20the%20general%20population.
ZERO TO THREE. (2023). “Racial Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.” Retrieved from: https://www.zerotothree.org/issue-areas/racial-equity-diversity-inclusion/
Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance. (2023). “Fact Sheet|Military, Veteran Women, and Maternal Mental Health.” Retrieved from: https://22542548.fs1.hubspotusercontentna1.net/hubfs/22542548/Military%2c%20Veteran%20Women%2c%20and%20Maternal%20Mental%20Health%20Fact%20Sheet%20-%20MMHLA%20-%20Nov%202023.pdf
Jennifer Novak is the Senior Writer/Training Specialist for Military Family Projects at ZERO TO THREE. She has a specialty focus on the needs of children and families impacted by trauma and applies a trauma-informed lens in creating these tools. She provides training and technical assistance to professionals and develops evidence-based resources designed to support military families with young children.
As a former military spouse for ten years, she brings personal experience and knowledge of the issues surrounding military and veteran families to her work. She holds a Master’s Degree from Florida State University in Social Work, and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Florida in Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. She also holds an LMSW in the State of Maryland and provides part-time mental health counseling services to children and adults.
Jennifer co-presented two webinars for OneOp around Navigating Parenthood and Military Life and Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders and Military Life.