Transparent conversations on hormonal contraception are needed

Gwen Ueding | Cartoonist

By The Editorial Board

Taking a pill once a day at the same time to combat period symptoms, prevent health issues or pregnancy doesn’t seem like a bad deal — until it is. Over half of the female population aged 15 to 49 years old in the U.S. use some form of contraceptive, and the birth control pill is second most common according to the 2017-2019 National Survey of Family Growth.

With a prescription for birth control pills comes a remarkably long list of fine print instructions, side effects and possible risks. Possible reactions to the pill or how it works are not always clearly conveyed to women to the full extent before it’s prescribed as a catch-all for period irregularities or preventing pregnancy. Reading the map-like spread of medical terminology and confusing language that comes with a prescription is no easy feat.

Other hormonal birth control methods include an injection, the patch, ring and implant. There are also nonhormonal contraception methods, like female and male condoms, cervical caps and spermicides.

Some side effects according to Mayo Clinic include bleeding or spotting, breast tenderness, headaches, nausea, bloating and increased blood pressure. While the pill and other hormonal birth control methods, like the patch, are used successfully to help with common female health issues, there’s still a disconnect with communication surrounding the realities of birth control.

Symptoms of depression are linked to the use of hormonal contraception as evidence suggests the hormones used, estrogen and progesterone, influence brain function, an article published in the National Library of Medicine by Eveline Mu and Jayashri Kulkarni said.

“One of the most common reasons given for the discontinuation of oral contraceptive pills is changes in mood or an increase in depressive symptoms,” the article said. “Currently, all oral contraceptive pills may cause mood changes, but the newer oral contraceptive pills containing estradiol or estradiol valerate may be less likely to cause mood changes.”

Any hormonal birth control has the potential to impact how the brain works. The synthetic hormones in birth control and existing hormones interacting can interfere with neural structures dealing with emotion and cognition, according to a 2020 article published in the National Library of Medicine.

Side effects that may seem simple to warn people about before choosing the pill are not always prioritized by healthcare professionals. In a poll of 417 women and 188 contraceptive care providers from 2014 showed women ranked the importance of knowing safety and side effects of the pill higher than providers did. Overall, the study showed discrepancies in what patients and providers think is important to know before making the decision.

If a medication has physical and mental side effects that impact the daily lives of so many women, it’s time to normalize having more in-depth conversations about those symptoms and other options before prescribing. There’s a level of casualness when it comes to putting women on the pill.

Yes, it’s supposed to be one of the most effective forms of preventing pregnancy, but the drastic mood-altering hormones and other implications might cause some people to reconsider if they’re aware beforehand. That’s not to say every person on the pill is emotionally unstable or has terrible physical symptoms; it’s a great option with limited negative side effects for many.

Sure, anyone can read the warnings that come with a prescription or do some research on their own. But, there’s no reason these side effects and how the pill specifically works should be a brushed-over conversation.

To combat this, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions about the specifics or about other options and talk about it with other people. Even if you are the partner to someone taking birth control, it’s important to discuss contraceptives and what options you or your partner have.

Women are forced to hold the sole weight and consequence of the pill despite often being given very little information about the effects of being on hormonal birth control. It’s convenient for male partners who most likely are unaware of the impact the pill has on their partners. Schools and medical professionals need to do their part in educating the public about contraceptive options — something that is utilized by so much of the U.S. female population.