Graphics by Sukaina Imam
By: Rosemarie O’Shea
For many users, the birth control pill’s side effects pose problems beyond spotting and migraines. The pill’s effects on the mental health of women are now being more widely discussed than ever. More women are opening up about their birth control experiences and how it has taken a toll on their mental wellbeing.
A quick YouTube search results in various videos titled along the lines of “Why I quit the pill”, where one video is even titled and thoroughly capitalized “THE PILL IS MAKING ME CRAZY. I QUIT”. Despite all this discussion in the social sphere, the medical research in comparison appears to be lacking.
Upon being made available to Canadians since 1960, the pill quickly became the country’s most popular form of reversible contraception. Now, more than 100 million women worldwide use the oral contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy or control their menstruation.
Birth control pills contain varying levels of the hormones estrogen and progestin, the synthetic version of progesterone, a natural sex hormone. They prevent the release of the egg to stop ovulation from occurring, whilst also thickening the cervical mucus so that sperm cells are unable to enter the fallopian tubes. Both tactics minimize the chances of the egg meets sperm fertilization fairy tale. Provided it is taken correctly, the pill’s efficiency rate is stated to be 99 per cent effective.
Of course, almost every medication comes with its own set of side effects. The most commonly reported repercussions of the pill include intermenstrual spotting, nausea, breast tenderness and migraines. Slotted amongst these physical reactions, the ever-ominous sounding ‘mood changes’ is also listed.
These ‘mood changes’ are reflected in the most common reason for women to stop taking or change the pill they are using – its ramifications on their mental health.
In the 1970s, women protested for more information to be made available about the side effects of the pill as there were increasing reports of women suffering from heart conditions in connection to it. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration required manufacturers to include inserts, within its packaging, listing the pill’s side effects and risks.
The FDA also required that the pill’s formula contain a significantly less amount of estrogen which has resulted in a lower risk of cardiovascular events and emergence of cancers. However, the connection between usage and increased risk of experiencing mental health issues weren’t legitimately addressed.
Recent studies have determined a link between the changes in hormone levels and the extent of anxiety and depression prevalent such as in premenstrual syndrome. Furthermore, the progesterone hormone has been shown to induce depression while its synthetic version, progestin, has been discovered to result in the decreased production of serotonin which is the hormone responsible for feelings of wellbeing.
Finding an ethical method of proving the cause and effect relationship between the pill and deteriorating mental health has stunted research in the field as the distribution of placebo pills to study subjects would result in unwanted pregnancies. Though, a study involving celibate subjects would face no ethical deliberation.
The issue remains that the advancement of medical technology concerning all categories that the pill’s side effect falls into: mental health, contraceptive technology and women’s health. Funding for such research is simply inefficient in times where it is most needed and expected by many.
Moreover, there is a consistency in the medical community’s reluctance to connect the pill with mental health issues, despite the large quantity of claims that have supported the correlation. Such reluctance possibly stems from the pill’s profit and value as a commodity.
It also seems to be the most accessible form of contraception to many and, so, slandering its brand so to speak may appear as a brash move.
With so many women experiencing heightened mental health issues in connection to their usage of the pill, this is an issue that needs addressing within the medical community. While the government are pushing more funding into mental health awareness, this problem continues to grow without being adequately addressed by research.
It’s time to shift the focus from dealing with the issues at hand after they conspire to looking at preventative measures that will protect users. The pill and its implications need to be more well researched and users must be informed. It’s time for the medical community to listen to women’s experiences, as neglecting their health and wellbeing is not an option.