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How hormonal birth control affected my mental health

How hormonal birth control affected my mental health

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.

  • My first Birth Control left me angry, sad, moody. I switched rapidly between emotions daily and sometimes hourly. I had nausea and constant ‘breakthrough bleeding’. I hated the device (skin implant) and had it surgically removed about a year to a year and a half after it was first put in. My life became dramatically better in a matter of weeks. Months went by and I improved even more. I will never go back to that implant and I recommend a different solution for everyone.

  • I went through a similar experience. At the time endometriosis wasn’t a common diagnosis, so I was prescribed birth control pills in high school. This began an almost ten year struggle of trying to prioritize either my mental or physical health. On birth control I could live mostly pain free but I struggled with depression and terrible mood swings, without it I was emotionally healthy but had period symptoms so bad I would miss school or work. Only after a nasty reaction to the rod implant (and years of research) did I stop hormonal birth control for good. It wasn’t until after college that I found an OBGYN who finally explained and diagnosed endometriosis. Don’t stop fighting until you find a solution that works best for you!

  • Me at 14 and now my daughter who is 18 had horrific cramps. I was eventually after they swore endometriosis, diagnosed with that. Then after 3 kids fybromyalgia and chronic spasms so at 35 they took all my feminine parts. Too bad they didn’t take the pancake boobs too!!! No offense intended, they are just gross!! But I DO NOT want my “young 18” going thru any of the hell I went through nor with a man like her father who’s responses are I’m so glad I’m not a woman and damn that must hurt?????? We got the brains at least my female tribe!!!!

  • I am taking Birth Control at the moment and have been for a couple of years now. At first it seemed to help my periods since I was not regular, but now I think it’s affecting my mental health! I feel like I’m going crazy all time. I cry to for reason at all at times. How could I fix this for myself?

    • Holly, do consider other methods. There are better alternatives now society has improved. My solution was Kyleena IUD…I have had no adverse reactions and have been relatively happy on it. It releases a gentle hormone stream but does not prevent ovulation. You may need to still use…ahem…other forms of protection. But I believe Kyleena may work for you. Have a conversation with your doctor! Hope is alive and real. Don’t give up.

  • This speaks volumes. I went on birth control at the beginning of this year, before getting married in April. The first month I didnt notice anything, but the 2nd month I started to realize that my mind was always groggy. My Fiance said he noticed that I was not responsive to him at all and that I was starting to have a bitchy attitude. We got married etc…and I went to pick up my pills at the pharmacy. The brand they gave me this time was a different generic brand, with the same dosage. That was 2 months ago. That was the worst month of mental health I have ever had. In 3 weeks time, I went up a pants size, my boobs swelled and ached none stop. I cried over everything and I had morning sickness for 2 weeks. I was starting to think I was pregnant. The thought of sex made me sick and more emotional. I had anxiety attacks and mood swings which is totally not like myself. Then period week came. My period had been consistent for months and then bam…wacked out. It was late. The flow was different. I was so confused. Half way through that week I decided I would never take hormonal birth control again. I think that even generic forms of the pill differ between brands of the same dosage. I stopped taking the pill at the end of that week. Best decision ever. Like you said, I felt like I came out of a fog. I havent lost all the weight yet, but its fascinating how quickly I began feeling like the me I know myself to be. I am so glad to know that I’m not the only one who experienced a change in mental health while being on hormonal birth control.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I have similar issues using hormonal birth control. It makes me paranoid and short-tempered. As time goes on, it eventually makes me depressed. I used birth control pills for a year and have never gone back due to the side effects. A few years later I had a Mirena IUD implanted. Due to the low dose of hormones released, my gynecologist and I agreed it was worth trying it out. Unfortunately, even such a low dose eventually made me paranoid and depressed.
    I’m glad you were able to get help when you did and are speaking out about it now.

  • This sounds similar to my first experience on the pill. I was 17 and started the pill to improve my periods, and it did. But by the end of 18 months and three different pill versions, I was a mess. I missed school one day because I couldn’t help but cry the night before, and I didn’t know why I was crying!
    I’m now almost 25 and I’ve been on it again for the last three and a half years, and I wonder if it’s affecting my mental state. It’s been much smoother this time around and I barely get a period (which is great). But I’m curious if it has masked any part of who I am, or what would change if I went off of it. However, it’s a lot cheaper than getting pregnant..
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  • My daughter is 18 and she started taking birth control pills probably around September of 2018. I’ve noticed she is a little emotional, has told me that she felt depressed, and now after reading this I’m wondering if it has to do with her birth control pills.

  • This mirrors my experience exactly when I started taking birth control in college. It took almost a year before it occured to me to look into the side effects of my birth control as the cause of my depression. As soon as I stopped, life became vibrant again instead of bleak.

  • I began taking a daily birth control pill after my youngest child was no longer nursing. Up to that point, we had just been careful. At first, I felt that the lighter period was wonderful, but only a few months into it, I was crying constantly. My husband was convinced that I was just mad at him all the time, for no reason. We fought constantly and I hated the massive depression I found myself in. One evening, after a huge fight, I threw both of our cell phones through the wall. I decided at that point, since this was the only time I had acted this irrationally, it was time to find out what was causing it. I was telling a friend about the incident. She told me she had the same “crazed” feeling when she took the same medication. I immediately stopped taking it and after a few cycles, I began to feel like myself. My husband and I were back to speaking again. My Dr tried to talk me into multiple other options but we have chosen to just take the blessing, if given one again.

  • For the past several years it’s been messing with my sex drive but I didn’t know it was that until I quit taking the pill the end of last year. A couple months later my libido returned & I finally felt normal.

    • In my twenties, I only had the on-and-off relationship with birth control, and since I would only take it for a few months, then stop, then start again, I could really see the difference. It killed my libido and it did push me into moody, melancholy, crying-over-some-shit states, for sure.

  • I cannot find the right word to truly express how profoundly I understand this! I feel this. I know this. I am 34 years old and throughout my young adulthood, between pregnancies and beyond I have had health care professionals trying to push me back into hormonal birth control… over and over for various reasons over the years. Despite knowing better for myself they continue to tell me I’m wrong and that my instinct to avoid hormones hAs no basis in reality. I’m so disappointed in healthcare as it is. And I’m a nurse.

    • Eleanor, it is so sad that others have foisted their objections and their hesitations upon you. You should always feel supported by the medical system and by your fellow health workers!! Spread the word. Dont give up!

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