Kay Matthews: Breaking Cultural Barriers in Maternal Mental Health

Kay Matthews | Founder | Shades of Blue Project
Kay Matthews | Founder | Shades of Blue Project

Starting her entrepreneurial journey as a catering chef and custom cake designer in 1999, Kay Matthews set up the stepping stone of her professional career. Today as the Founder of the Shades of Blue Project, Kay is focused on improving Maternal Mental Health outcomes for black and brown birthing people.

The organization offers social support services, job placement skills, onsite therapy sessions, support groups, and many more dedicated services to benefit the community.

Let us know more about the entrepreneurial drive that led Kay to make continued efforts for this shift.

The Early Journey

As a successful event planner and baker with an ever-growing clientele, Kay built a successful company doing precisely what she loved. Her passion for creating delicious meals and beautiful cakes had paid off, and she was proud of her accomplishments. Her clients loved her work, and she loved providing them with memorable experiences and fantastic food and cakes.

In 2013, tragedy struck Kay, her business, and her life as she knew it. Like most pregnant women, she worked until her third trimester and had consistent prenatal care. For the most part, her pregnancy had been uneventful, with only some morning sickness and typical discomforts. Unfortunately, there were no triggers or warning signs for what was about to happen. Kay was about to face a life-altering event that would change everything for her.

Kay was eight months pregnant and still working, preparing to bake a client’s wedding cake when she didn’t feel well. Despite feeling unwell, she planned to finish the cake and see a doctor afterward. Her sister was concerned and remarked that it must be severe if Kay volunteered to go to the doctor. Kay sometimes struggled to complete the cake, stopping and starting and even lying down. Eventually, she couldn’t take the pain anymore and called 911, which took her to the hospital. It was a day that Kay would never forget, as it was the day she delivered her daughter, Troya Simone, stillborn.

Kay was heavily sedated and remembered nothing about her daughter’s birth. She didn’t even get to hold her, and there were no markers with her feet or handprints. Kay received abysmal care as a new mom who had just delivered a baby, but the doctors and nurses treated her as a woman who had sepsis. Despite not having a baby to take home, Kay’s body and mental state were like any new mother’s, and the doctors and nurses didn’t address all the things that need to be discussed after one gives birth. She had to figure everything out on her own while grieving the loss of her child and handling the postpartum timeframe. This entire experience propelled Kay into advocacy for Black birthing individuals, regardless of their birthing outcome, and led her to start the Shades of Blue Project.

After ten years of serving in this space, some challenges remain the same. However, through her work, others have started conversations around being more inclusive of all birthing experiences and not just birthing outcomes.

Kay and her team have worked with policymakers to change how old legislative laws create barriers within underserved communities and how those ancient practices need to be revised. People with little understanding of the issues have been making decisions about birthing individuals for too long. Those who work in this field, work closely with families and have solutions are often ignored because their organizations need to carry the notoriety or funding of more prominent organizations. This alone fuels Kay daily to educate, train, and advocate for community members and work towards making these challenges non-existent.

Inspiring the Community

Kay’s mission is to improve the birthing experiences of Black individuals, regardless of the birthing outcome. Kay’s advocacy organization, Shades of Blue Project, partners with legislators to create legislation that improves maternal morbidity rates for Black women. The organization collaborates with like-minded groups to enhance maternal mental health care and cater to new mothers and their families basic human needs. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Shades of Blue Project served over 1,500 clients, providing support sessions, healthcare services, and supplies such as diapers, formula, and household items.

To combat the lack of Black maternal mental health care and the ill-treatment of Black birthing individuals, Kay developed the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method Training. This unique training focuses on compassion and is tailored to women of color and minorities. The training can be implemented by doulas, midwives, clinicians, and those facilitating support groups.

Kay created Black Maternal Mental Health Week (BMMHW) to break down cultural barriers in this space further. BMMHW is observed annually from July 19-25 and is a week-long event that centers on the challenges that persist, viable solutions, community support, and compassion training. During BMMHW, healthcare workers, community leaders, families, and laypeople can participate in a two-day summit, a community brunch, and a 3K family walk.

Shades of Blue Project’s summit is unique in bringing all healthcare and community leaders to discuss the issues and develop solutions. At the end of each conference, attendees have actionable items and solutions they can take back to their workplaces and communities to implement change. Kay’s passion for improving the birthing experiences of Black individuals fuels her daily to educate, train, and advocate for community members and work towards making these challenges non-existent.

Driving Significant Cultural Change

Kay, a prominent figure in the maternal healthcare industry, has had the privilege of serving as a keynote and panelist for various conferences and organizations. She has lent her expertise to the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, 2020 MOM, the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, and The Future of Maternal Care Summit.

Recently, Kay was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers Summit, which focused on the impact of social determinants of health on maternal and neonatal health outcomes. During the panel, Kay discussed the persistent lack of care for Black birthing individuals, drawing on the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee and Department of State Health Services 2022 Biennial Report.

Additionally, Kay was the lead author of the October 2021 research article, “Pathways To Equitable And Antiracist Maternal Mental Health Care: Insights From Black Women Stakeholders,” published by Health Affairs. She also contributed to the research article titled “Black Perinatal Mental Health: Prioritizing Maternal Mental Health to Optimize Infant Health and Wellness,” published by Frontiers. Kay is particularly excited about her contribution to an actionable framework supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called “Raising The Bar,” which aims to promote equity and excellence throughout the healthcare sector and improve health outcomes for all.

Kays says, “I believe in caring for the people, including Shades of Blue Project employees, interns, and volunteers. I also give my staff time off yearly because this work requires it. The emotional, high-stakes, life-or-death situations our clients find themselves in can be emotionally taxing. So, I ensure that my team takes time to unplug and rejuvenate. That includes a month-long sabbatical for myself, and my team ensures I take it.”

Moving Forward

Kay and her team recognize the importance of technology in the future of maternal mental healthcare. They are actively working on solution-driven approaches to ensure underserved communities can access these resources. With technology playing a crucial role in the future, Kay’s team wants to ensure that access is not a barrier for those who need it. Their program services are currently accessible through web and app-based technology, making it easier for individuals to access the support they need.

Kay believes the healthcare sector needs to shift its focus back to patient-centered care and prioritize compassion. According to her, empathy must be mandatory and not optional when caring for individuals. She believes that the healthcare sector needs to go back to basics and ensure that the needs of patients are at the forefront of everything they do. Within her organization, compassion is central to all their activities, and they lead with it in the healthcare sector.

Kay hoped that her organization would become unnecessary in the next decade, indicating that progress would be made toward resolving the issues surrounding Black birthing individuals. She stated that if her organization existed for ten years, it would imply that the message had not been heeded and solutions still needed to improve the status quo. Kay wished to implement existing solutions to address the persistent problems and improve outcomes for Black birthing individuals.

From Me to You

Kay advises aspiring entrepreneurs who consider being in the healthcare industry to remember how they started.

“Let your obstacles and struggles fuel you to the next level. No matter your hardships, look at them as learning curves and stay focused on persevering through them all. And most of all, be sure to take care of your mental health in the process,” Kay concludes.