Rise provides psychiatric services and a safe space for black parents

About 15 parents stood in a circle at Blacklick Woods Metro Park in Reynoldsburg, braving the heat and humidity of a late July evening.

Everyone had their eyes closed. A woman had one hand on her heart and the other on her stomach.

“I am enough just as I am,” said Ivory Levert, leading a guided meditation. “I welcome moments of calm and lightness and implement them in everyday life. I tell my truth and ask what I need.”

The group met on July 24 as part of Root to Rise, an event where co-founders of the Black Women In Nature organization took members of Rise — a maternal mental health organization that caters specifically to Black parents — for a walk take through the park.

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Rise is a branch of Perinatal Outreach and Encouragement for Moms (POEM), a program of Mental Health America of Ohio that provides Ohio mothers and families with peer support groups, referrals, and education about pregnancy and mood and anxiety disorders.

The nature walk capped Rise’s event week for Black Mothers’ Mental Health Week, which in turn was part of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in July. The designation recognizes the struggles faced by underrepresented groups regarding mental illness in the United States, according to Mental Health America.

To help, Rise offers a mentoring program and referrals to color counselors and psychiatrists, among other things.

“They offer round-the-clock services like the support groups that happen frequently, and then they also call you depending on what’s going on with your pregnancy or what’s going on in your life,” said East Side member Tiffany Davis Hale, 30. “It’s really based on what you need and I like that.”

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Rise creates safe space for black families

When Hailee Childs, 34, joined POEM in 2019 as Senior Manager, Community Programs, Rise was already being developed by the organization. Her job was to promote and organize the first self-help group.

“We started to intentionally make sure that we were in the doctor’s offices, in the obstetrics (midwifery) offices, in the pediatricians’ offices, and in the WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) offices where our mothers are,” said childs

POEM and Rise program coordinator Cass Stewart, 44, said the organization recognized there was a gap in the care of women of color in the greater Columbus area and that a separate branch was needed.

According to the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders are the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth, affecting one in five people during pregnancy or after childbirth.

Black women are twice as likely to suffer from mental illness but half as likely to receive treatment. According to the Alliance, more than 50% of cases of postpartum depression in women of color go unreported.

“We realized that our services needed to be more culturally connected and specific to this group,” Stewart said. “So Rise became a thing and started growing.”

Referrals from healthcare providers increased significantly in the early days of the pandemic, particularly as closure orders were in place, Stewart said.

So far this year, the number of referrals stands at 576 people, Childs said.

The majority of Rise’s support group meetings have been virtual for the past two years, but they will transition to in-person meetings at the end of August, she said.

Both Childs and Stewart have first-hand knowledge of this type of service. Both said they suffered from depression and anxiety after giving birth prematurely.

“I feel like I’m just using my superpowers to help other moms activate their superpowers, that you really can do that,” Stewart said.

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One of the Rise members who recently took part in the nature walk was Turquoise Connelly, who commented on how refreshing it was to be in nature with a group of black women as the group took their first break during a 1.5 mile went for a walk.

“Usually when I go alone I feel very nervous just feeling physically alone and then knowing that people have their expectations and aggression towards black people out in the woods; like you shouldn’t be there,” Connelly said. “But I don’t feel that right now.”

Connelly, who is non-binary and uses she/them pronouns, said they felt alone after having their daughter Riley in 2020 and suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety. Most of that stress came from being diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia, a condition that occurs when you have high blood pressure soon after giving birth.

“It made it extremely difficult to breastfeed and I had all these people (doctors and breastfeeding groups) who would shame me if I was struggling with breastfeeding and they wouldn’t give me medical support to help me, to increase my supply,” Connelly said. “And the emotional resources were also missing.”

The 33-year-old Franklinton resident was prescribed two medications for high blood pressure but still had trouble expressing milk. So they switched to formula.

Connolly joined Rise in February and said her mental health has greatly improved. Members have referred her to a therapist for help with anxiety and depression, and she feels welcome in the group as an LGBTQ person. One-year-old Riley even joined Connelly on the nature walk.

Connolly, who is now pregnant with her second child, feels better prepared this time.

“POEM is an invaluable resource. It’s priceless.”

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