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PhD Student Focused on Improving Black Maternal Mental Health

Sydney Morris

Close to 40% of Black mothers will suffer from postpartum depression - more than double the rate for the general population, according to Sydney Morris, a PhD student studying Black maternal mental health with PAU professor Alinne Barrera. In particular, she is working to adapt an online program called the Mothers & Babies Course to make it more accessible to a wider range of people.

The Mothers & Babies Course, which aims to reduce depression associated with pregnancy,  teaches skills to people who are pregnant, parents who have recently given birth, and those who want to support them. Morris is looking at cultural adaptations to make the program more applicable to, for example, adopting parents, people who are transgender or LGBQ+, and people giving birth in community-based settings. 

As PAU celebrates Black History Month, and the 2022 theme of Black health and wellness in particular, Sydney Morris is an example of PAU students compassionately serving their communities and making mental health more accessible to everyone.

“I’ve always been interested in Black mental health. Initially, I was interested in the school-to-prison pipeline, then the legal system and incarcerated birthing folks, and now pregnancy and birthing in the Black community,” Morris said. Morris uses the phrases “birthing people” and “birthing folks” to include trans and gender nonconforming individuals who may not identify with the labels “women” or “mother.” These phrases are increasingly used in academia and, to some degree, the medical establishment.

Morris’ attention eventually turned to Black maternal mental health after she graduated from Xavier University. Still deciding on her next career steps, she applied to a year-long foster care program. Over the course of the next thirteen months, Morris would foster fourteen children. 

“That time was really special to me,” she said. “I got to be on the inside. I got to see how many things impacted the parents of the children I was working with. A lot of the parents were low-income or people of color, they had various mental health issues or were dealing with some sort of trauma. There were a lot of things impacting them.”

Morris fostered many of her kids for short periods of time, often as their mothers were completing requirements and regaining care of their children. But one child was with her for nine months. “It was really eye-opening, and it was a really transformative experience for me. Throughout the year, I got more interested in learning about infant mental health, which is really connected to perinatal health, which is really connected to maternal mental health.” 

That’s when she met Dr. Alinne Barrera through an Admissions event and enrolled at PAU.

“It’s really important to look at systemic factors when thinking about how to solve this issue, because maternal mortality rates for Black birthing folks exist even across education and socioeconomic status,” Morris said.

“I’m researching how systemic racism and discrimination is embedded in all our systems. Birthing folks may not have complete autonomy, not have their wishes respected, or there can be traumatic birth experiences.” Morris wants to examine how birthing outside of hospital settings can impact mental health outcomes and maternal mortality rates. These settings could include home births, birthing centers, or any community-based setting that isn’t a hospital.

She would eventually like to provide mental health services in a birthing center, working in partnership with people in the community and empowering parents in their own birthing plans. Morris looks to organizations like One Love Black Community, “a grassroots, Black led, community mutual aid effort to show up for Black folx who access a wide range of reproductive health services in San Francisco.” Or The Irth App, which helps people “find prenatal, birthing, postpartum and pediatric reviews of care from other Black and brown women.” 

“I really value community-based work,” Morris said, “because there’s been so much harm done historically when people are not a part of or from communities they’re researching.”

Morris advises therapists, counselors, and medical professionals to “listen, learn, and take direction from the mouths of Black birthing folks. Educate yourself using resources, literature, media, and stories from Black birthing folks, because no one can speak to that experience but them.”