Article Feature: It Takes a (Virtual) Village To Raise a Mom

Much of my mental health journey as a mother began with my introduction to peer support groups. I attended my first in-person bipolar support group at Mount Sinai hospital during my second trimester in 2019. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I began attending support groups online. Now, I serve as a perinatal peer support group facilitator. My experience as both a participant and a facilitator has directed the focus of my research towards the digital infrastructure, therapeutic and community building value, and limitations of online mental support groups for moms and birthing people.

Given my work, fellow Black mother and writer L’Oreal Thompson Payton reached out to me about being featured in a story about modern parenting in the age of social media for Kindred, a Black offshoot of Parents magazine. After I participated in a thirty-minute interview about my lived experience with mental health challenges in motherhood, I had doubts about whether disclosing my diagnosis and talking so openly about my experiences was a good decision. Now that the article has come out, I am really happy with the care with which L’Oreal presented my story. Below is an excerpt from the article “It Takes a (Virtual) Village To Raise a Mom” with quotes from the interview.

A birth and postpartum doula by trade, Mbonde unexpectedly became her own first client when was pregnant in 2019.

“I came across a lot of mental health challenges that I had no idea I would be experiencing,” Mbonde shares. “I have a bipolar diagnosis, which is a preexisting mental health condition, and I wasn’t really warned about what that would entail for my pregnancy.”

Toward the end of her second trimester, Mbonde found a variety of resources to help her, including support groups.

“Although I had been living with this diagnosis for a couple of years, this was the first time I really gained insight into what was going on with me, because as you know, mental health is very stigmatized and taboo within the Black community, especially a diagnosis like bipolar,” Mbonde explains. 

Mbonde gave birth in January 2020. Three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic began and the in-person support groups she’d grown to love shifted to virtual platforms, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ new group, Black Minds Matter.

“It was the first time I’d encountered a group that was specifically supporting Black people and that was a great space to process my feelings,” Mbonde shares. “I was a unicorn in these spaces. There’s this weird silence around people with mental illness being parents.”

The experience led Mbonde to join Postpartum Support International, a perinatal mental health organization, and later help launch their first perinatal bipolar support group. “I felt it was important to facilitate as a Black person so people can feel safe,” she says. “If you see a facilitator leading your group who looks like you, you’re more likely to feel safe.”

While virtual support groups tend to be more accessible, they’re not a cure-all. “If you’re someone who is struggling with depression, it’s a lot easier to stay in your pajamas and log on a call than get dressed up and go somewhere,” says Mbonde. “At the same time, telehealth is excluding a lot of people who don’t have access to the Internet.”

Another benefit of online support groups is that most of them are free, or low-cost, and don’t require the level of commitment, or health insurance, that therapy does. For people who are curious about joining online support groups and wary about opening up to strangers, Mbonde advises taking it slow.

“It’s a very vulnerable thing to start attending these groups,” she acknowledges. “But know that you’re in charge and you don’t have to disclose anything you don’t want to. You can also really benefit by listening. It’s up to you.”

“Attending support groups has definitely changed my life,” Mbonde shares. “I would not have the level of awareness I have about my own mental health condition if I didn’t go to support groups, because the people in the room really reflect back my own lived experience, whereas, prior to that I thought I was the only one.”

Read the full article here.

I feel grateful for all the growth along my journey that has given me the courage to share my truth without fearing the consequences of stigma. The sense of liberation and knowledge that my story can help others far outweighs my impulse to self-censor. I look forward to continuing to practice vulnerability as I embark on my autoethnographic film project about my experience with mental health challenges during pregnancy.

Image Description: A Black woman lying in bed with headphones on cradling her pregnant belly with one hand and holding an iPad in the other.

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