As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, we asked a member of our community to share a personal experience with hormonal birth control and mental health.
I started my period on the later side: nearing my 16th birthday, I was the last in my close-knit group of girlfriends. As if arriving fashionably late weren’t enough, my period made a dramatic entrance. I experienced a heavy flow and painful cramps from the start. After a few months it became apparent that a severe period and nausea-inducing cramps would be my norm. So my mom began exploring options to ease my monthly struggle. I was prescribed hormonal birth control before the end of the year.
And it worked. Within a few months, my periods were completely different. Consistent down to the day, with lighter bleeding and no cramps, it seemed my problems were solved. But while the positive side effects of birth control — eased cramps, reduced acne, and a lower risk of ovarian cancer — were generally known at the time, far less was communicated about the potential downsides. I gained weight, my boobs felt sore to the touch, and my moods changed.
At first, I rationalized my increased irritability and listlessness as a normal part of puberty. After all, the teenage years are marked by changes that are not only physical, but psychological. But as time went on, my mental state worsened. I withdrew from my friends. I lashed out at my family. I became depressed, at times spending days in bed sobbing uncontrollably.
This all happened in 1998. While progress had been made to destigmatize mental illness in America, the topic wasn’t as widely discussed as it is now, especially in the small, isolated Midwestern farm town where I lived. The internet was mainstream, but not the same vast resource for information and community that we rely on today. The options for birth control were more limited, the hormone doses were higher, and far less was known about the connection between hormonal birth control and mental health. My parents watched as their daughter became a different person, unsure of what to say or where to turn for help. I was convinced the fault was entirely mine, that this was simply the person I was becoming. I felt guilty, ashamed, and completely alone.
I wish I could say there was an aha moment; a revelatory instant where I realized that birth control was severely affecting my mental well-being. In reality, I went back to the doctor who prescribed me birth control because I was unhappy with the physical side effects I was experiencing: weight gain and breast tenderness. She prescribed a different brand, and when those symptoms didn’t improve within a couple of months, I decided on my own to stop taking the pill. As the soreness and weight dropped away, so did the fog I’d been living in. By the time I was back to my original physical state, I felt better overall – clearer, and lighter emotionally. It was as if I’d been struggling for months to see the blurry outline of myself in the distance, and now that old self was slowly coming back into focus.
Looking back, it seems obvious to me that the progesterone and estrogen in the pills I was taking directly impacted my mood and my mind. At age 16, when the link between hormonal birth control and mental health was less established, it wasn’t so clear. Even now, knowledge gaps still exist when it comes to birth control.
That’s why it’s so important that we talk about historically private topics like this one. If 16-year-old me had been able to connect with others who’d gone through a similar experience, it would have made all the difference. I might have realized that the mood changes I was experiencing weren’t just a normal part of puberty. I might have talked to my parents and doctor about feeling depressed. I certainly wouldn’t have felt so alone.
The idea for this blog post arose organically during a LOLA event: a group of customers who didn’t know each other, in a room discussing how hormonal birth control had affected their mental health. It was powerful to hear so many women share their stories, after feeling for so long that my situation was unique. It’s a conversation we felt should extend beyond the walls of that room.
So how about you? Has hormonal birth control impacted your mental health? Join the conversation by leaving a comment.