Funding will expand program targeting preterm births and infant mortality among Black mothers in Northeast Ohio
KENT, OHIO - Infant mortality rates in Northeast Ohio are three to five times higher for Black babies than white babies, an alarming statistic that is an issue across the country but particularly prevalent in this part of the state. A new $100,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation
will support innovative work being undertaken at Kent State University to address this important issue.
Experts at Kent State have found through their research that untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress among Black mothers play a critical role in high mortality rates among Black children.
In response, Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychological Sciences within the College of Arts and Sciences, developed and launched the Spirit of Motherhood Program in 2021, which screens and treats PTSD and chronic stress among Black expectant mothers with the goal of reducing symptoms that impact the health of mothers and babies.
“Too often, post-traumatic stress disorder among Black pregnant women goes undiagnosed and untreated,” Neal-Barnett said. “Chronic stress and trauma experienced by pregnant mothers play critical roles in infant mortality. If we can reduce those things, we can reduce the rates of preterm births and infant mortality.”
The Anthem grant will allow the program to recruit more interventionists, enabling them to bring into the program up to 20 additional mothers and up to 40 of their preschool children. Specifically tailored for pregnant, urban Black women in the Cleveland and Akron metropolitan areas (Cuyahoga and Summit counties), the program was developed for Black mothers by Black mothers and will be led by Neal-Barnett, a Black woman and licensed Ph.D. psychologist.
The program also offers a group musical intervention for preschool-aged children to help them learn how to cope with stress and regulate their emotions. While mothers are participating in the Spirit of Motherhood, their children complete the four-session musical intervention at the same time and the family practices coping skills together. To date, the intervention has been completed by seven women and their preschool children, and five more women are currently being onboarded.
The Spirit of Motherhood program is a multilevel, multigenerational intervention program with the goal of reducing trauma and stress symptoms experienced by pregnant Black mothers participating in the program. This will in turn reduce the weathering on the mother’s body, leading to a reduction in preterm birth rates and infant mortality rates.
Northeast Ohio has the second highest infant mortality rate (IMR) in the state. In Cuyahoga County, the IMR for Black babies is 15.49, while the IMR for white babies 3.76; in Summit County, the IMR for Black babies 14.0 compared to an IMR of 5.7 for white babies.
“We hope results and evidence gathered from this program will help provide critical information about the role of maternal mental health on infant mortality and help inform policy on maternal health best practices at both the state and national levels,” Neal-Barnett said.
“To close the health outcomes gap between Black and white babies in Ohio’s communities, we have to understand and address the underlying social, emotional and physical conditions that lead to them,” explained Elizabeth Bonanno, M.D., behavioral health medical director at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “The Spirit of Motherhood program is doing just that by identifying mothers who need help and connecting them to trusted people, programs and resources.”
The program will integrate cognitive-behavioral interventions, tools and techniques along with music intervention. Designed with input from pregnant and postpartum mothers, doulas, community workers and infant mortality research interventionists, the program is founded on community-based participatory research and with community partners who remain committed to the project, including the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, Birthing Beautiful Communities, First Year Cleveland, Friendly Inn Settlement of Cleveland, Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron and the American Psychological Association. The generous support from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation will allow this project to move forward.
“Dr. Neal-Barnett’s work is a powerful example of how partnerships such as the one between Kent State and the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation can make deep impacts in the lives of young mothers in Northeast Ohio,” said Benjamin Tipton, executive director of foundation relations at Kent State. “This program provides resources to meet the evolving needs of Black women with race-related stress during pregnancy and deliver interventions to multigenerational difficulties. We are grateful to the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation for its tremendous support of this important work.”
About Kent State University
Kent State University is the highest-ranked public university in northern Ohio on the Top Public Schools and Best National Universities lists by U.S. News & World Report. Kent State also holds the esteemed distinction of being one of only five institutions in Ohio to be recognized as an elite research university by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. With eight campuses spanning Northeast Ohio, a College of Podiatric Medicine, a Twinsburg Academic Center and academic sites in major world cities, such as New York City, Geneva and Florence, Kent State is one of Ohio’s leading public universities and a major educational, economic and cultural resource far beyond the Northeast Ohio region it has served since 1910. Kent State is a national leader in award-winning student support services to graduate students. The student body comprises about 35,000 students, including 1,370 international students from nearly 100 countries, and the worldwide alumni family exceeds 264,000. The addition of new learning environments from the sciences to the arts and the development of exciting new academic programs characterize Kent State’s focus on transformational educational experiences.