On Sept. 28, the University of Copenhagen published a study that confirmed a correlation between hormonal contraceptive use and depression. This study, which tracked one million Danish women between the ages of 15 and 34 for a period of 13 years, revealed that women taking the combined oral contraceptive were 23 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Furthermore, the study confirmed that women using other hormone-based birth control methods—including the IUS/coil and the patch, which are frequently recommended alternatives to the pill—were even more likely to develop depression.
When I read this article, my reaction matched those of many of my friends on campus who responded with a simple question: “Didn’t we already know this?” The rumoured possibility that oral contraceptive use could impact mental health has been circulating in the discussion of women’s health for years. In fact, after months of telling herself that it was “all in her head,” a close friend of mine expressed concern that her birth control pill was contributing to her mood swings. To my surprise, however, this study is the first to provide a conclusive link between the two.
The implications of this study are twofold. On the surface, the content of this study calls into question the amount of research that has been put into assessing the side effects of the birth control pill. The fact that this study is the first of its kind to be conducted at its large scale points to a larger void in the scientific arena. This study also serves as a reminder that women must have an understanding of the side effects of the pill before beginning to use oral contraception.
For many young women living in North America, it seems as though the oral contraceptive has stealthily incorporated its way into our transitions to adulthood. Taking the birth control pill has become a cultural norm, especially for women of university age. The results of this study are therefore particularly startling for those who started oral contraceptive use with a ‘bandwagon’ mentality; they paid little attention to how ingesting the pill alters the natural chemistry of the body and the physical, emotional, and mental side effects that result.
Although startling, the results of this study should in no way deter women from oral contraceptive use, considering its importance for women’s reproductive rights since the 1950s. When it was introduced, the birth control pill was initially regarded as a vehicle for female empowerment, allowing women to control when they reproduce—if they choose to do so. Since then, it has developed a multipurpose nature; doctors recommend the pill not only for preventing unwanted pregnancy, but also to help women regulate hormones, reduce acne, and to lessen menstrual cramps—the list goes on.
This is not a question of whether the birth control pill is good or bad. Like any medication, the pill is bound to have its advantages and disadvantages. But, considering the fact that 500 million women worldwide take oral contraceptives everyday and that women are already twice as likely to experience depression as men, it is crucial that women have a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks of oral contraceptive use.
While young women must actively seek out information on the birth control pill before beginning to take it, they can only do so if this information is readily available. Universities, health clinics, and other educational institutions must match efforts in research—such as the University of Copenhagen’s study—by making the information readily available to those in need. Currently, McGill’s Health Promotion Office provides information on the statistical effectiveness of birth control methods; however, its website fails to mention any side effects, including possible mental health complications. Although the site provides users with the opportunity to book an appointment for a birth control prescription, it should also encourage women to actively seek out information, speak to their physicians about any concerns, and monitor any changes in their bodies after starting a hormonal contraceptive method.
It is important to raise awareness about the side effects of oral contraceptive use and how it might be altering the moods of the 500 million women who take it. These women can then be better equipped to proactively take measures that will help manage the changes in mental health that may result. Women living with mental health problems that may be influenced by the birth control pill—like my friend—must be assured that no, it’s not in their heads.