Why has it taken so many years for women's concerns about oral contraceptives to be properly researched?
Despite the repeated insistence of women for years that the contraceptive pill has a negative effect on their mental and physical health, the first comprehensive study on how hormonal birth control affects women’s well-being has only just been published. The study, conducted by the Karolinska Instutet in Stockholm, found that, unsurprisingly, “oral contraceptives reduce general well-being in healthy women”.
The double-blind study took 340 healthy women aged between 18 and 35 and, over the course of three months, treated them randomly with either placebos or contraceptive pills. The latter contained ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel – the “most common form of contraceptive pill in Sweden and many other countries”. Despite nobody knowing which pills were given to which women, those who were given contraceptive pills estimated their quality of life to be lower. This was across areas of mood, well-being, energy, and self-control – all of which were affected negatively. Surprisingly, no significant increase in depressive symptoms was evident.
The study notes that these changes were small, but that they may be of clinical importance. The finding that the pill negatively affects women’s well-being is unsurprising; the fact that it has taken so long, despite a form of the pill being available since 1960, is not. Regardless, as of late, the research is piling up. A study by JAMA found that the use of hormonal contraception, especially among adolescents, was associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and diagnosis of depression. Earlier this year, The Debrief published a study, “Mad About The Pill”, looking in particular at the negative mental side effects of the oral contraceptive pill. They found that while many women reported an increase in depression, anxiety, and panic attacks while on the pill, they didn’t feel taken seriously when they reported these symptoms to their doctor.
“While many women reported an increase in depression, anxiety, and panic attacks while on the pill, they didn’t feel taken seriously when they reported these symptoms to their doctor”
The results of The Debrief’s study, overall, are pretty dire – but they don’t come as any kind of a surprise to those of us who have been prescribed birth control. I have been on one form of hormonal birth control or another since I was about 15, and so have all but one of my close friends. Many of them were prescribed it not for contraceptive reasons, but for irrelevant ones – to control periods or for acne, for example. Related or not, I wouldn’t say that any of my friends would call their own mental health or well-being great. The effect of almost ten straight years of hormonal contraceptives on my body is untold – when I’ve voiced these opinions to my doctors and asked whether it’d be smart to take a break, they wave away my fears. I was originally on the contraceptive jab and quit because it made me fly into a blind rage at nothing during the first few weeks – I was told that the mini pill would be safer.
Of course, I personally had shitty mental health long before I popped any progesterone, but as The Debrief’s and many others show, it’s not the same for all women. I spoke to my friend Zoe, who has been on the Microgynon since the summer of 2010, foremost for contraception. “I'd had bad luck with condoms and thought hormonal contraception would be less hassle, not knowing the emotional problems it would cause me,” she tells me. “After a couple of months on it I started feeling disconnected from everything and like nothing mattered. Everything around me felt like white noise and I'd spend days either staring at walls or crying. At the time I blamed my low mood on the stress of A-levels but looking back it's obvious that my depression stemmed from the pill. When I came off it, it was like I'd re-entered the world again. I've spoken to so many people with similar experiences and it really fucks me off that this is only just being looked into.”
There are countless articles, studies, and stacks of anecdotal evidence piling up that will hopefully provide the catalyst for medical professionals to think more carefully about prescribing the pill, the effect it has on our minds and bodies, and an actual long-term solution that won’t completely fuck us up. Of course, if it was men reporting in their thousands that they were suffering from a lack of energy, severe depression, anxiety, and general poor well-being because of a highly available and over-prescribed medication, perhaps we’d have seen better research done sooner.