Science confirms young women on the pill are 80% more likely to use anti-depressants. Why?
On a bleak Friday in March of 2007, I found myself deep in a Filene’s Basement in Boston, buying a lot of fudge. The chocolate wasn’t for me; it was intended as a peace offering for my five college roommates, whom I feared now hated me after being exposed to a week of my paralyzing mood swings, depression and anxiety. I had just turned 20 years old and I had recently begun taking birth control.
The trouble began a month earlier when, apropos of nothing, my period decided to go completely fucking haywire. It took me a while to notice. I was a college sophomore, splitting my time between my introductory screenwriting classes, my part-time job, rehearsals for a play and rehearsals for my sketch comedy group. I was stretched thin—so thin that I failed to realize my body had been systematically bleeding for over two weeks.
It was a Tuesday night and I had just returned home from another long rehearsal for the weird, artistic, nude play I was performing in (nothing gets college students off quite like naked theater). I plopped down on our common-room couch to bang out a paper on Woody Allen’s influence on American cinema, only to realize several hours later that I was feeling strangely lightheaded. I stood up and looked behind me?—?in the two hours I spent half-assing the paper, I had also bled through all my layers of clothing and the polyester fibers of our standard-issue dorm-room couch.
And so, I found myself being escorted by my sweet, heroic roommates through Boston’s Chinatown at three in the morning, in search of medical expertise. When we arrived at the hospital, I was given some fluids and told to consult with my primary care physician about starting birth control.
According to a 2012 study performed by the Guttmacher Institute?—?a leader in reproductive health research?—?9.7 million women in the United States use the pill. It’s the preferred method of contraception for women in their teens and twenties. There are many benefits to using hormonal contraceptives, aside from its most obvious use, preventing unplanned pregnancies. In high school I had friends who started taking birth control to clear up their acne or to help manage their endometriosis.
But the pill is not a catch-all solution for contraception and for many women, it has the potential to cause deep mental suffering. When I went in for my consultation with my general practitioner, my biggest concern was possible weight gain (I had heard that this was a common side effect). I knew mood swings were common, too, but I wasn’t too worried. I failed to note my doctor’s pointed questions about my family history with depression and anxiety. And when I left 30 minutes later, my new prescription clutched in hand, all I could think was how glad I felt to have finally found a way to stop the bleeding.
Before birth control I was a normal college student?—?busy, happy and obnoxiously passionate. I loved my classes and my roommates and I felt creatively fulfilled by my extracurricular activities. That all changed the moment the hormones entered my bloodstream. I became withdrawn and lethargic, prone to skipping both classes and rehearsals for no reason at all. All my latent depressive tendencies came out to play; I ignored my friends or snapped at them when they asked me simple questions. I avoided my suite, paranoid that my roommates were talking about me or finding reasons to conspire against me. For exactly one week I became a full-fledged monster; then I quit birth control and bought a lot of fudge.
It took me three years to give the pill another shot. Bolstered by suggestions that one week was not enough time to allow my body to adjust, I switched to another brand that my physician assured me was less hormonally invasive.
This time I lasted an entire month before I returned to my doctor and pleaded with her to let me get the copper IUD, which is entirely hormone free. She was reticent; I was only 23. Even though I was in a monogamous relationship with my then-boyfriend, she felt compelled to repeatedly explain to me that if we were to break up, the IUD would not prevent me from catching STIs. I assured her I understood and that I did not give a shit. I got the IUD and it did exactly what it was supposed to do?—?it prevented pregnancy without driving me to the brink of actual insanity.
On September 28th of this year, JAMA Psychiatry published findings from an unprecedented study, which examined how one million Danish women between the ages of 15 and 34 responded to birth control. Their research uncovered a direct correlation between using hormonal contraceptives and depression. For women like me, who have experienced the negative impact added hormones can have on our bodies and minds, the results are not shocking, but they are validating. And when scientists immediately launched attempts to discredit the study, we were still not shocked, only resigned.
The personal health and sexual status of women has traditionally been considered fair game for public dissection. But to hear a scientist attribute young female depression as part and parcel of embarking on “a sexual relationship” is insulting at best and slut shaming at worst. Young women who have sex don’t deserve to be depressed. Not every woman who goes on birth control is doing it to prevent pregnancy and if a scientific study tells us that 15- to 19-year-old women who take oral contraceptives are 80% more likely to use anti-depressants, our job is not to tell them “You’re wrong”?—?it’s to find out why.