EPISODE 3: INNOVATING FOR MATERNAL HEALTH DISPARITIES

Lauren Elliot, Founder of Candlelit Therapy shares about the her innovation to address maternal health disparities among women of color.

For Black mothers, like me, COVID-19 has exacerbated health disparities, severely strained the U.S. healthcare system and intensified our fears of exposure to the virus and overall experiences as new and expectant parents. Earlier this summer on July 2, Sha-Asia Washington, a 26-year-old expectant mother, was admitted to the Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY for a routine stress test, though doctors discovered what they called abnormally high blood pressure and recommended she receive an epidural, or medication to induce labor. Sha-Asia ended up being rushed into an emergency C-section as complications worsened, and after 45 minutes of CPR, Sha-Asia went into cardiac arrest and died. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Sha-Asia’s deaths, these horrific moments only make it clearer that Black families in particular experience a painfully intense amount of stress, depression and anxiety largely in silence.

Four years ago, my husband and I found out I was pregnant with our son soon after getting married and weren’t prepared emotionally or mentally for parenthood, but pushed through whichever emotions felt like fear and quickly learned from our mistakes. This perseverance is particularly common for Black families and families of color due to stigma surrounding mental health. As a new mom, I was diagnosed with preeclampsia and experienced postpartum depression after an emergency birth of my son, but didn’t see a pathway toward mental healthcare that mirrored my life. My experience wasn’t and still isn’t unique. Black women face greater pregnancy and birth complications, such as preterm birth, low birth weight, depression, preeclampsia, and worse, maternal death. COVID-19 has caused disruption to an otherwise standard frequency of prenatal care visits, which can lower the opportunity for early detection and intervention of high-risk factors, such as mental health challenges. 

Black non-Hispanic women face a Severe Maternal Morbidity rate three times that of White non-Hispanic women. Severe Maternal Morbidity (SMM) refers to life-threatening complications from delivery. Source

While pregnant, I worked at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and noticed a large gap in preventive health — the mental health needs of parents of color. Up to 60% of Black women will deal with a mental illness before their babies turn 1, which can devastate an entire family as Black women are often the primary earners of their households. Since then, I sought out ways to use technology to address poor mental health among families of color in a scalable and culturally-relevant way. That’s why I’m building my company, Candlelit Therapy, for millions of new and expectant Black mothers, birthing people and their families desperately in need of access to not only healthcare, but quality healthcare. 

Our flagship product, Candlelit, is the first AI powered end-to-end mental health clinic for Black, Indigenous and POC (person of color) women and families during and after pregnancy. We connect parents and their doctors with therapists for easier and earlier mental health support to radically reduce racial/ethnic health disparities, stigma and barriers. The idea is to destigmatize and normalize mental health symptoms and challenges earlier in pregnancy throughout a child’s first birthday while offering an entry point for women who are struggling, but aren’t ready to speak to a professional licensed therapist. 

Candlelit is also timely given monumental shifts in policy. In 2019, for the first time in years, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that an entire field of physicians refer pregnant and postpartum women at risk of depression to screening and counseling. What makes us special is that we offer a continuum of care that doesn’t exist for Black parents and parents of color – a tailored clinic with resources, support groups and providers that reflect them in one app. Candlelit in a lot of ways is an intervention that provides diverse birthing parents with emotional and mental health support, by combining predictive analytics with culturally-relevant teletherapy to streamline and centralize mental health risk assessment and referral into counseling for parents, while helping their doctors earlier predict and manage mental health conditions. Our mobile app will be free to download for new and expectant parents who deal with cultural, environmental and cost barriers to access mental healthcare. 

We’re bringing more support to millions of underserved culturally diverse women and families at-risk of mental health disorders prior to the birth of their children by simplifying her access to culturally competent mental health screening and expert-level care to ensure a healthy pregnancy and childbirth.

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