When the birth control pill was introduced in the 1960s, it sparked a revolution: women could take charge of their own sexual freedom. Now, women around the world are finding alternatives to the Pill after recognition of its effects on psychological health.
Despite the six decades that pill has been omnipresent, 99% effective and not even known by a brand name, perceptions around it are changing. Those who have taken the time to read the leaflet that comes in a pack of birth control pills will know that it comes with a list of benefits, such as, “it is one of the most reliable reversible methods of contraception”, “it doesn’t interrupt sex”, “it usually makes your periods regular, lighter and less painful”, “it may help with pre-menstrual symptoms”, and “it may reduce your risk of cancer of the ovary and womb”, according to the warning leaflet in a pack of Microgynon 30.
But the more intimidating part of the leaflet comes in the form of the list of risks, which is over ten times as long as the list of advantages: “The Pill will not protect you against sexually transmitted diseases”, “this medicine can increase your risk of blot clots and breast cancer”, and possible side effects include “feeling sick, stomach ache, putting on weight, headaches, painful breasts, loss of interest in sex, skin rash… Chloasma, and Crohn’s disease”. Nestled in the middle of the list of risks is “depressive moods or mood swings”. Lost in a long list of much scarier-sounding side effects, like rashes and cancer, depression is often overlooked when it comes to taking the pill. Interestingly, however, ‘depression’ has become the most common women choose to find alternative contraception methods.
A large-scale study by JAMA Psychiatry, part of the Journal American Medical Association Network, researched the effects of birth control pill on psychological health, and the results released will be of particular interest to adolescents and university students. The study analyzed over 1 million women aged 15 to 34, and concluded that women who took hormonal contraception had a 23% greater chance of having depression than those who did not take the pill. Even more intriguingly, users of the pill aged 15 to 19 were 1.8 times more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than women of the same age who were non-users.
“women who took hormonal contraception had a 23% greater chance of having depression”
Another observation was that the incidence of depression among women of all ages was significantly higher during the first six months of taking the pill, which is the most common point at which women decide to stop taking it. One university student told Exeposé that a few months into taking the pill, she found herself constantly crying, and it became “increasingly worse towards exams, so [she] pinned it down to general stress”. But, she still felt depressed and had multiple panic attacks when on holiday in “what should have been a relaxed and stress free environment”, and merely days after deciding to abandon the pill, felt like “a new person”.
Oral hormonal contraceptive pills remain the most popular form of birth control for women, with 75% of American women being prescribed it at least once in their lives, but the movement away from the it has a particular focus on natural methods, in rejection of the synthetic hormones in the pill. One option is a copper IUD (intrauterine device), a form of the Coil that releases only copper into the body, changing the make-up of the fluids in the womb to stop sperm surviving there. Whilst these IUD’s have existed since the 1970’s, another alternative to the Pill, which has only gained prominence this year, comes in the form of an app. ‘Natural Cycles’ comes with a thermometer, which you use to take your temperature every day, and the app will tell you how fertile you are. Whilst the company claims 93% efficacy for typical use, not enough independent research has been done to fully validate this.
There is a multitude of options when it comes to birth control, but greater knowledge of the risks is urgently needed, particularly those that concern mental health. There must be more detail in the warning leaflet on the psychological risks of the pill, since depression can be equally as life-threatening as the other diseases mentioned in the side-effects.