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Study: High eviction rates may harm Black women’s mental health during pregnancy

Eviction rates in Columbus remain historically high. said the city saw more than 2,100 evictions in the past month, which is nearly 160% of the pre-COVID average.

A new study suggests that living in a neighborhood with high rates of eviction can lead to high levels of psychological distress, even for neighbors not facing eviction. Researchers say this effect is felt acutely among pregnant Black women.

Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson is Associate Professor of Epidemiology at The Ohio State University College of Public Health. She led the study, which appears in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Matthew: There’s a long history of racist policies that have disproportionately affected African Americans when it comes to housing. How did this show up in your research?

Sealy-Jefferson: So metro Detroit is where the study took place, and Detroit is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the country. And that racial and economic segregation is not accidental. It’s also not random. It’s not normal. It was created by redlining. Redlining was a system of quantifying the risk for home loans. And high risk was giving given to neighborhoods with high proportions of Black people in these neighborhoods or in neighborhoods that were close to neighborhoods where Black people lived.

An important thing to focus on what we’re talking about in this paper is how living in a neighborhood where you see other people evicted, how that is related to psychological distress and pregnancy. So it’s not just about your own individual experiences with eviction, but your neighbors being evicted and people who you are in community with facing this type of violence.

Matthew: Facing eviction is very stressful in any context, but as you say, even just seeing your neighbors hit with an eviction notice can lead to these elevated levels of psychological distress.

Sealy-Jefferson: We know that about 80% of all maternal deaths are preventable. We also know that the leading cause of maternal death is poor mental health. So in this paper, we focused on moderate psychological distress and serious psychological distress. And this mental distress can be understood as negative psychological responses to stressors. And these may include being nervous, unhappy, having irritation and being overwhelmed. It was stunning that in our sample, 60% of the sample had moderate psychological distress during pregnancy and 8% of the sample had serious psychological distress during pregnancy. So this is not normal stress. This is like a toxic stress…and we know that Black communities are woefully underserved in terms of mental health care, so this is an important public health issue.

Matthew: Housing insecurity, mental health and racial inequities are big and complicated issues. What, if anything, can be done to address the inequities we’ve been talking about?

Sealy-Jefferson: We have a lack of accountability for landlords. We know that 40 to 50% of all evictions do not go through the courts, which means that they are illegal. Civic leaders and people who are interested in solutions to this problem should be demanding accountability for landlords. So we need policy change. We need policies that protect tenants and renters.

We have to try to understand it’s not about people’s poor choices. It’s also not about people’s biology. These inequities are a function of the way our society is organized around racism and classism and misogyny, or in this case, sexism and heteronormativity. So all of these systems of oppression are the root cause of these inequities. And we need to be designing interventions focused on the root causes.

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