By Julia Richards | Photographed by Hillary Schave on location at Hilton Madison Monona Terrace
Shonita Roach has endured challenges in life that most would find unimaginable. As a child she was abused and then placed in foster care. She lost a son at 21 months. She had an extended NICU stay with another son born with a severe birth defect. All of these challenges were compounded by the racism she faced as a black woman in the United States.
Roach was on her own, grieving the recent loss of her adoptive mother, who had been helping care for her young son, and suffering from postpartum mental illness when she had to move. She left her son unattended while she made a phone call. When she returned a few minutes later he had suffocated and was dead.
“Honestly, it broke her awhile,” says her sister Tameria Roach, who talks to Shonita on the phone daily.
When Shonita gave birth to her second son, she gave him to another sister to raise.
“She realized that she wasn’t prepared to be a parent and she asked for help. And a lot of people don’t,” Tameria says. After many months of counseling, parenting classes and visitations, Shonita regained custody of her son, who is now 12.
“It was a long process, but it was needed for her. And it was something that made her realize that postpartum mental health is so important,” Tameria says.
Shonita recognized not only the importance of postpartum mental health care, but also the lack of support systems providing it, especially addressing the needs of women of color.
“The black experience is different when it comes to mental health,” Shonita says.
“Imagine being afraid of acknowledging that you’re dealing with something that can simply be spoken out of your mouth to a therapist, but that therapist takes it as if you’re a danger to your child.”
She decided to educate herself in political action and get involved. She founded a non-profit, called Shades of You, Shades of Me, focused on empowering women of color to advocate for improved maternal mental health care.
One of the objectives is to educate providers and support providers of color. Roach, along with her communications director, Amy Dean, planned and held a multicultural maternal mental health conference in Milwaukee last year. Tameria, who serves on the board of Shades of You, Shades of Me, says Shonita had been talking about organizing such a conference for years. “I was so proud of her,” Tameria says. “That she was able to tell her story. That she was able to let people know that they don’t have to go through it themselves.”
The group plans to expand the conversation to other communities throughout the state and even outside of Wisconsin in the coming year.
Another focus of Shades of You, Shades of Me is advocating for public policy related to the mental health needs of mothers of color. One piece of legislation is an anti-shackling bill, similar to those already passed in 21 other states, banning the practice of shackling incarcerated women when they give birth.
Another policy effort would address the criminalization
and prolonged sentences facing women whose actions were influenced by undiagnosed or undertreated postpartum mental health disorders. Such legislation has passed in Illinois and
Shonita is looking for sponsors to introduce a bill in Wisconsin.
Shonita would like to see a more solution-focused approach to addressing issues affecting women of color. Too often the women themselves are blamed or penalized for their struggles.
She gives the example of a woman being late to pick up her kids from daycare and the response being someone calling child protective services. “For women of color, to tell somebody, ‘I work three jobs and I was late to get my kids’ is a penalty, and that’s how America sees us,” Shonita says. “I would like to see there be a little bit more compassion about hardships and about single moms.”