People are warning women who take the contraceptive pill that they are more at risk of getting depression, by citing a recent study from the University of Copenhagen *. Based on a thirteen year prescription history of one million Danish women, this study found that those who had taken hormonal contraceptives were more likely to have been later prescribed antidepressants, or diagnosed with depression. The researchers and critics are very careful to point out that this is a correlation, and does not constitute birth control as a cause of depression. That doesn’t stop the media from posting sensationalist headlines though. Due to the complex socio-environmental factors that might have led to these results, we cannot say anything concrete at this stage.
I have been on the combined pill for six and a half years now, and must say outright that I have never suffered from depression. However, this study makes me uncomfortably recall the crazy hormone changes and mood swings that I went through as a teenager. Overall it study suggests an 80% increased chance of depression in adolescents, compared to their pill-free peers. Looking back, it’s impossible to know if my brain-developments were the result of my natural hormone production, or the ones that I was feeding myself. My feelings that “no one can possibly have ever felt this” seemed anything but universal at the time, but may well have been ‘normal’. Either way, I have always taken for granted the inevitability that the pill could alter my mood, by nature of it being hormone altering. I join the self-righteous congregation of women who bask in their relative mental health, and flock to defend the pill. The emotional and sexual security that the pill has provided me seems like a necessary risk. “Better a bad brain than a baby”. I’m wary that these claims delegitimise the very severe consequences that depression can have on people’s lives, and it’s unfair of those of us who have not experienced it to make sweeping comparisons between two totally different bodies.
There are many criticisms to make of the science behind this new study, as with any study, and I am not the one to make them (I had to google ‘rate ratio’, and I still don’t really get it). Nonetheless, this information may give a sense of validation to so many women who have felt for a while that their depression is linked to their contraceptives; It also gives a solid platform for further research to be done. This is the angle that Grigg-Spall’s article * seemed to take, which is a dominant commentary on the issue that is in circulation. She argues that attempts to criticise the study are the equivalent of ‘pillsplaining’ and would be further dismissive of women’s experiences. Although I’m excited by any new feminist neologism, I now find myself under pressure to reconcile my positive experience with the pill and my desire to be a ‘good feminist’, according to Spall’s criteria. She states that in the face of risks to our mental health, placing the onus on women to take the pill, rather than men, is “nothing short of sexism”. Actually, I think it might be something slightly short of sexism, as for many the pill acts as a symbol of women’s liberation, giving them the ability to control their own fertility, and their own bodies. I am uncomfortable with sexism, of course, but also with using feminism as a trump card to prevent criticism or debate. I think the dismissive responses to the research, my own included, are far more complex than the rubber stamp of “patriarchy” can fully explain, even if it is a factor. The research is not only inconclusive, but brings to rise our deep-rooted frustration that we do not actually have full control of our bodies. This goes for men too.
Male contraceptives! I think they are a great idea, that would give men greater control over their sex lives, the very thing I want everyone to have, regardless of gender. But actually, it’s not my place to decide. I dare not replicate the self-important behaviour of male MPs towering over legislation and making decisions about bodies that I don’t identify with. I’m making a deliberate effort to brush aside my initial scepticism; I would never trust my sexual partner to take his contraceptive properly. I think that’s legitimate based on far too many uncomfortable experiences I’ve had, and horror stories through the grape-vine. But realistically, why should my sexual partners necessarily trust me? It would be nice if we didn’t just default to the assumption that women have to take on the burden of birth control. This is never more evident than the amount of times I, and others I know, have been met with confused expressions, followed by “oh-I assumed you’d be on the pill”. Heterosexual sex is stunted by the many unspoken assumptions that same-sex partners would otherwise need to verbally negotiate. Who provides what contraception, is amongst many. Hopefully the introduction of male contraception would further necessitate these conversations.
There have been recent developments with trials of a male injection *, but it has been now been pushed aside amid fears that it is linked to depression, along with other side effects. Thus begins a whole new debate: the medical community seems far more sensitive to the disruption of men’s lives, and will cancel research despite the fact that 75% of participants would take the injection again. We should use this as an opportunity to praise the developments in contraceptive research, but let this not be a distraction from the many problems with female contraceptives. Because of the contentious context that these two pieces of research exist in, I can see why the rejection of this research brings frustration to women who have limited choice but to deal with the consequences of hormonal contraception. These frustrations should be taken seriously, as should men’s desire to control their fertility, but shouldn’t be dismissed with claims that “women have more contraceptive options”. It’s not a sweet-shop of exciting opportunities, but a creepy, low budget fair-ground ride that could crash at any moment. The options aren’t great for either side, so how about we be respectful of the fears and frustrations all round.
I can’t speak for the many women who feel that their pill has triggered, worsened or caused their depression, but I think it is just as problematic and ‘un-feminist’ to create headlines to evoke fear in the many women who rely on it to support and secure their sexual freedoms. The medical community should be taking women’s mental health and reproductive freedoms as seriously as men’s. At the very least this should provoke a necessary dialogue around our approach to both sexuality and mental health, encouraging us to take depression more seriously as a hormonal imbalance and not just circumstantial or even imagined. It is time that we legitimise and listen to people’s experience with their own bodies, and that we are given enough information and resources to make decisions for ourselves. In an ideal world, no one should have to make a decision between their reproductive and mental health.