Discussing the relationship between mental health and the contraceptive pill, Nina Attridge shares her experience.
I went on the pill when I was 15. At the time, this felt logical and after a trying out a few brands, I settled on one and remained faithful to it up until just last October. You probably remember, that around that time the articles came flooding in that had every female who has ever used hormonal contraception scoffing. ‘The Pill could be linked to depression!!’ ‘Studies prove that women who are on the pill are X amount more likely to be prescribed antidepressants!!’. My immediate response was ‘No shit, Sherlock’. I don’t think I know a single friend who uses hormonal contraception that hasn’t reported a subsequent decline in general mood and wellbeing.
Retrospectively, what I felt was the sensible and safe decision (and what was encouraged as such), meant that for what I could view as the five most formative years of my life so far, I was taking daily medication that was actively altering my hormones, subsequently my mood, and as ultimately, my outlook on life. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written you’re probably sick to death of me preaching at you about my formerly shitty mental health, but I have never mentioned how strongly I feel that my decision to start taking the pill had a massive impact on this. I used to make a separation in my head between unhappiness that was caused by the pill, and some kind of deeper discontent with life. I felt that if my feelings were merely a side effect, then I should, for some reason, be better able to manage them. In short, I thought if my depression was induced by my choice of contraception, it wasn’t real depression. I actually think a part of this was that I slut-shamed myself for needing the pill at all, I think a voice somewhere in my head was saying that if I couldn’t handle the unwanted side-effects, perhaps I shouldn’t be having sex at all. Which is of course a ridiculous line of argument for a young female. This even played a big part in why I didn’t seek help for my problems sooner, as I anticipated that if I went to the doctors complaining of symptoms of depression, they would be reluctant to offer help if I didn’t first stop taking medication that lists depression as a probable side effect. The thought of this terrified me, as, like many young people, I used to (perhaps still do) rest a significant portion of my self-worth on my sex life. If I came off the pill, I would no longer be practicing entirely ‘safe’ sex, and therefore by proxy, the sex I was having would be dangerous. So for five years, I justified the low moods and irritability on account that I felt that an unwanted pregnancy would be a much worse detriment to my mental health.
I do not disrepute the merits of hormonal contraception entirely, it’s just unfortunate that the time when women are most encouraged to depend on it, also happens to be an already extremely challenging time in a young woman’s life. I’ve watched enough period dramas to know that I would much rather have the option of hormonal contraception, than with every sexual encounter risk a 9 month late special delivery. It is clear as crystal to me now that having to (much to my reservation) rely on condoms is the lesser of two evils. It feels strange to me that I didn’t see just how much growing up on the pill was going to affect who I became; I had no sense at all of who I was as a person without the low moods. I’d had no chance to form a strong identity of my own before I started to skew it with more extra hormones than I could handle.
As young females, we are judged if we ever need to depend on the morning after pill or, worse still, abortions. I understand completely that these should not be used as a substitute for otherwise safe sex, but in my view, I’d much rather need the morning after pill once in a blue moon (which I haven’t yet needed after around 7 months off the pill), than sacrifice my mental health daily. Condoms are not an ideal solution, but they do have the benefit of being an instant and impermanent contraception. I personally feel that we could benefit a lot from trying to eradicate the all too prevalent view among young men that the responsibility of contraception should fall at the feet of the woman. We will never be able to eradicate the tendency for youthful promiscuity, nor should we necessarily need to, but it is a horrible injustice on young women that in 2017 it is still us that bear the weight of keeping our bodies just how at this age many want them – unimpregnated. The murmurs during foreplay are not often ‘I’ll get a condom’ but instead; ‘are you on the pill?’ This assumption perpetuates the, even if nowadays subtle, stereotype that using a condom is ‘boring’ and therefore the woman that demands its use is too. From my experience, women often resent their use as much as men, as they can be a bit of a killjoy – no-one is denying that, but the difference is that it is the woman that bears the burden of the consequence if its use is omitted. A brief killjoy in the moment is a lot better than taking a tablet that has the capacity to quite literally kill the joy in the rest of your life.
Trying to eradicate this sexual selfishness* among men, coupled with bids to raise the self-worth of young women – rather than shame them for their sexuality (did somebody say ‘Feminism’?)- to make the focus more on making young people feel comfortable enough to state their limits and needs in sex, is the only way we can start to eliminate the need for young women everywhere to choose between safe sex, and their sanity.
*While I’m here, I’ll just add that I’m deeply opposed to all elements of sexual selfishness, not just the lack-lustre approach to condom use.
*Although it goes without saying that the contraceptive pill does not affect everyone in the same way, it is clear that this is a more significant issue than many at first realised and that all should be made aware of before making their own personal choices. Sexual health and mental health are both vital parts of wellbeing and neither should be overlooked*