Can Birth Control Impact Mental Health?

Over 50 years ago, oral contraceptives were invented, altering the way society treats sex and women’s health. Later, the widespread use of “the pill” in the 1970s liberated women. It gave them the ability to gain more control over their sex lives, their pregnancies, and their families.

Today, close to 10 million women in the United States use the pill for birth control. However, the pill may be doing more than just preventing pregnancies; it could be preventing women from living a happy, fulfilling life. The pill, a symbol of women’s liberation and freedom, could be pulling women down into depression, harming women in an unexpected, irrevocable way.

 A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found a correlation between the use of birth control and subsequent diagnosis of depression and use of antidepressants. Dr. Øjvind Lidegaard, who led the study, reported that among all hormonal birth control users in the study, there was a 40% increased risk of depression after six months, compared to women who did not use hormonal birth control.

The mean age of participants in this study was 24 years old, so this raises the question of how oral contraceptives affect young women. Birth control has been known to help not only with just preventing pregnancy, but also normalizing menstrual cycles, decreasing acne, and reducing the risk of some cancers in the reproductive organs. While side effects from using the oral contraceptive - including headaches, nausea, and cramping - are not new, the implication that oral contraceptive use can have supremely negative effects on women’s mental health calls into question whether its use is safe at all.

It is also important to note a promising study of birth control for men was stopped early due to side effects, most alarmingly an increase risk in depression. The men were found to experience similar side effects as women’s contraception, such as headaches, but the increased risk of depression was the main motivator behind the cancellation of the study. With evidence from this new study published in October of 2016 stating that women could be experiencing the same side effects as men, including the increased risk of depression, does this mean that using the pill is just as harmful to women as the contraceptives were on men?  And, if so, is the popularity of the pill and the need for birth control a more powerful demand than the mental health of women?

Despite Lidegaard’s findings, more research must be conducted in order to determine whether the relationship between oral contraceptives and depression is causal. Similarly, at this point the study’s research is not significant enough to change much about the practice of prescribing oral contraceptives.

However, this study further emphasizes how crucial it is for women to be aware of the risks when using hormonal contraceptives. Women should also be aware of alternatives to the pill and other non-hormonal forms of birth control. For instance, condoms, cervical caps, the vaginal sponge, spermicide, and the copper IUD are all forms of non-hormonal birth control that are not associated with a risk of depression.

Over 50 years ago, women were given the ability to have control over their bodies. Today, 10 million women may have less control over their mental health. However, studies like Lidegaard’s show how our knowledge of women’s health is continuously progressing and, hopefully, the study can springboard development of new alternatives or changes in the composition of the pill and other forms of birth control.

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