Can Birth Control Manipulate Our Mental Health?

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I had never been depressed.

Despite angsty teenage years, a terminal illness, and the loss of a parent as a pre-teen child, I had held on to sidestepping depression as a sort of personal achievement that I didn’t talk about. In fact, I thought that my ability to cut through my own emotional garbage was one of my best strengths.

When I was 11, my dad died from an aggressive cancer diagnosis. My mother grieved the worst of us, but I’m not sure her grief ever spilled over into depression.

If it did, it wasn’t talked about.

When I was diagnosed with cancer a couple years later, I think my mother, sister and I all suited up in personal armour – we had been through cancer before – rather than become depressed. Our armour cloaked us like a knee-jerk reaction.

If any of us did fall into depression, it wasn’t talked about.

I don’t think you really fall into depression. I think it follows you around like a shadow for awhile, slowly engulfing your light little by little. Until one day, you’re completely encased in darkness, squinting hard to see any sort of light at all.

I thought my mother, sister and I were warriors for surviving what we did. It naively led me to assume that warriors were so elite and strong that they could not become depressed.

So, ever since, I have always felt secure in my mental wellness.

HORMONES AND DEPRESSION

When I got pregnant, all I heard about was postpartum depression. It was normal. It was common. Help was available to me if I needed it.

Among all the changes my growing body was going through, depression didn’t really take up much space in my mind. I was confident in my mental and emotional stamina and I prided myself on being strong.

I beat cancer. Surely navigating a bit of postpartum depression – a natural reaction to all the change in my life and body – was tolerable for me.

After I gave birth to my son, the idea of getting pregnant again nearly paralyzed me. I wasn’t even out of the hospital before my nurses and doctors were warning me about safe sex. They told me a lot of women assumed they couldn’t get pregnant while breastfeeding, and my medical team wanted to make sure I was informed that some people do get pregnant just three weeks after they give birth.

In my hormonal tornado, this sounded terrifying.

While I was still healing from the labour stitches between my legs, I confessed to my ob-gyn how afraid I was to get pregnant again. Thankfully, my doctor had a solution: he heralded the IUD to quell my concerns about getting pregnant. The IUD was an extremely convenient birth control for new mothers. It would eliminate my monthly cycle, and it wasn’t a pill I had to remember to take on an already long list of things to remember.

And, of course, it was 99% effective.

At the time, I was passing citrus-sized blood clots from my vagina; trying to figure out how I felt about being a mother, and really – really – sore. Having one less thing to worry about sounded like a dream come true.

I’m not alone to be quick to jump on birth control after giving birth.

Planned Parenthood states that within the last nine years, IUD usage has jumped up by 75%. The IUD is celebrated as a miracle contraceptive that allows you to go condom-free, forgo a daily pill, and can even stay inserted for five years on average. Some brands can stay inserted up to ten years.

And after controversial American politics around women’s health this year, Planned Parenthood states that women seeking IUDs exploded to 900%.

As a new mother, still raw from labor with the pain of pushing a human free from my body still fresh in my memory, eliminating my chance of getting pregnant again just sounded like good planning.

So I agreed to get one.

BIRTH CONTROL, HORMONES, AND DEPRESSION

In the first few months after my son was born, the adjustment was insane. I knew that my bummy feelings were normal postpartum depression feelings, so I brushed them off, touted my usual mental prowess, and tried to power through. But wow, despite my awareness and personality, it was still hard to navigate.

Everyone feels this way, became my mantra and I suited up in my familiar coping armour that I had been taught to do.

By the time my son was nine months old, I was a frigid, emotional tycoon, feeling sorry for myself, extremely jealous of everyone around me, and absolutely miserable inside. I worried I had made a mistake by becoming a mother, and it was putting serious tension on me and my husband.

And my sex drive was in early retirement.

I kept telling myself that this was all normal while we adjusted to this new lifestyle of parenthood. What was more, I had moved my family to a new home in the country, started a new business, and helped my husband take over a new business.

I have a lot going on, I would think in an attempt to console myself.

And then the depression shadow started to grow over my light. Dark thoughts came. Sleep felt better than being awake. Crying was a daily event. Going out into public was excruciating. But being home alone was even worse.

I made an appointment with a therapist because that’s what all my postpartum booklets said to do.

Unfortunately, I was having a “good day” when I saw a professional.

My therapist didn’t offer me any “homework” or recommend things to do to help me with how I was feeling inside. I wrote her a cheque, felt like I had passed some test, and expected things to improve based on “how good I did” in front of her.

I guess this is just how motherhood feels inside, I would think to myself.

I stopped attending events that I would usually want to be at. I even ran out of a Q&A for a book I had written. I limited when I saw my friends because I never felt good about myself when I had to be seen, and my sex drive didn’t just retire – it died. I was overweight, lethargic, and not in control of my emotions.

I tried to talk to my family. But my warrior, fighter mother only felt for my husband, reminding me how difficult I must be making things for him. I was usually so self-assured. She also enlightened me to how much guilt my emotional episodes were putting her through.

That really didn’t help me.

And my husband didn’t know what to do with me. Every other evening it felt like he was shouting at me that he felt like he couldn’t talk to me about anything anymore. Because he couldn’t. Everything overwhelmed me.

On my son’s second birthday, the whole family came over. I floated through the house like a zombie. Nervous. Shaky. I was terrified someone would say something wrong to me to send me over the deep end. Crying in front of my family and my husband’s family would be the ultimate blow to my pride.

At one point, there were so many conversations going on that I thought I was going to faint. I couldn’t focus. I sat on the couch, stared out the window, and tried to concentrate on thinking straight. I felt crippled by confusion and feelings of overwhelm because there was no reason I should feel confused.

So I said and did as little as possible.

MOTHERHOOD, BIRTH CONTROL, HORMONES… AND DEPRESSION

I kept telling my husband that the “mental load” of motherhood, entrepreneurship, and managing our household was too much for me. I blamed these things for how I was feeling inside. So I made my husband “take over” everything I did for our family on a regular basis; I made him take over our finances, pay the bills, buy groceries, handle childcare, cook and clean, make lunches, do the laundry, plan appointments and coordinate schedules.

But of course our whole life started to fall apart without my household management. I had created an intricate machine that only I could run.

In my mental and emotional stress, I had developed obsessive lists and timelines and schedules to regain some sense of control I felt I was lacking inside. It felt like the only way I could survive.

If the new household manager deviated from how I needed things to be, I’d end up locking myself in our bedroom for entire evenings.

And asking my husband for help running our life only made me feel even more out of control.

Surely this can’t be postpartum depression, I started thinking to myself.

I mean, I had a toddler. I hadn’t just given birth anymore.

Besides, nothing was actually wrong.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 2016 study conducted in Denmark assessed one million women who were using birth control and found that all forms of contraception were associated with an increased risk of developing depression.

I had my IUD inserted in 2015.

Medical studies from previous years have always produced inconclusive results about depression and birth control because of unreliable methods of evaluation, such as asking women to self-report.

It’s extremely impractical to ask a depressed person to evaluate herself, especially if she’s been unknowingly absorbed by depression’s shadow. If I had to report to someone while I was feeling as confused, self-loathing, and overwhelmed as I did, the idea alone of evaluating myself would have led to locking myself in my room for 24 hours.

So there has always been this meek battle to connect birth control and depression together because past methods of evaluation have been unreliable, inconsistent, or non-existent.

In the Denmark study, any women who had a history of mental illness, previous or active prescriptions to anti-depressants, or who were pregnant or up to six months postpartum, were excluded.

Among the wide range of healthy women who were chosen for the study, immediate patterns of depression became measurable.

Higher risks [of depression] were associated with the progesterone-only forms [of birth control]. The risk was also higher for non-oral forms of birth control such as the ring, patch and IUD,” says Monique Tello, MD, MPH.

Among all hormonal birth control users in the Denmark study, there was a 40% increased risk of depression after six months, compared to women who did not use hormonal birth control.

All birth control methods have a small risk to create depression in a woman, but doctors are told that non-oral birth control options that are localized to the womb are safe.

That the IUD was particularly associated with depression in all age groups is especially significant, because traditionally, physicians have been taught that the IUD only acts locally and has no effects on the rest of the body,” says Tello.

Despite being safe to keep in the body for five to ten years, just under half of all IUDs inserted come out early. In a 2007 survey in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 46% of women had their IUD removed after three years due to hormonal side effects, like weight gain, depression or lack of sexual interest. The study also suggested that hormonal IUDs could induce a clinical situation similar to premature menopause in a staggering 50% of treated women.

But hormonal IUDs – like the Mirena – warn that only 5 – 10% of users may experience depression or decreased sex drive.

That’s a pretty dramatic difference in numbers.

There are a lot of problems going on here. There are inaccurate evaluation and studies on non-oral and oral contraceptives, and improper education to the doctors prescribing them. And most importantly, there is severely questionable counsel and advice to the women making the decisions about what contraceptive is the best choice for them.

An article on Well+Good states that IUDs can reduce a woman’s risk for cervical cancer – except doctors don’t quite know why that is just yet.

I’ve had cancer. And I’ve had chemotherapy, and radiation treatment to my womb. I know how scary the C-word is, but what’s scarier is what we don’t know about so many medical treatments, or objects we’re having inserted into our bodies. We’re so quick to jump on things that could prevent cancer – because cancer is terrifying – but we should still do our due diligence in investigating all the other potential illnesses a product like this could cause.

BIRTH CONTROL AND MENTAL WELLNESS

When I had my IUD taken out, my family doctor told me that it might take me a while to emotionally readjust because depression isn’t something you just snap out of. And since I hadn’t had a period in two years, she also said that my period still might not return for some time. I was to follow up with her after I had my IUD out for one month.

It didn’t take a month for me to feel like myself again. In fact, the very next morning after having my IUD out, I had a period.

And I could think again. I didn’t wake up tired. And oh my goodness… did I want to have sex? In the morning? With dirty hair?

I felt strong. Aware. And most importantly, I felt in control.

I did not feel depressed. And it was only then – that morning – that I could actually siphon through my mental and emotional thoughts logically to realize I had actually been depressed.

For two years.

If a form of “safe” birth control can make me feel like two entirely different people within the span of 24 hours, I’m not sure it’s safe at all.

I’m by no means an expert on mental health. In fact, I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how uneducated I am on the subject. I’ve discovered I’m a closeted pessimist with a penchant for morose inner thoughts simply because of what I’ve experienced in my life – even if I seem “positive” on the outside.

That makes me a pretty good candidate for depression.

I’ve also learned how uneducated my family is about mental health.

I thought we were warriors. Strong. Fighters. But I think we were just running from darkness – and from light. We were running for the sake of running in order to not let anything catch us at all.

I’m not sure we were actually feeling anything.

There are millions of people trying to cope with depression from a wide array of reasons. And coping with depression because of birth control should be something women are more aware of so we can make informed, educated decisions about our health.

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*This article was created for informational purposes only. This is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

Related Reads: Motherhood: I Should Be Grateful, Battling the Fears of Tears, and Health is a Journey of Body and Mind.


VANESSA KUNDERMAN is an openhearted writer and storyteller who inspires others to discover their own paths and personal stories. She has a diploma in Creative Communications, and teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her website, Rogue Wood Supply, is a large resource of modern spiritual practices centered around crystals, botanicals, and the moon. As an intuitive and crystal guide, she hosts sacred women’s workshops, offers crystal readings, and shares weekly moon phase oracles online. Vanessa and her work has been featured in Refinery29The New Moon projectCottage Life Magazine, and more. She is a mother and cancer survivor living in the Canadian Prairies.

Connect: FacebookInstagramPinterest, and her website.

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