The birth control pill was approved for use in the United States in 1960, and then in the United Kingdom in 1961. Right away, it was controversial; the pill includes serious side effects like blood clots and breast cancer, as well as more benign, yet still frustrating, side effects like weight gain, nausea, headaches, and bloating. However, a new documentary from BBC Two is bringing to light lesser-known risks of the birth control pill: depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
The documentary, titled, “The Contraceptive Pill: How Safe Is It?”, notes that 1 in 4 women taking the birth control pill reported in a survey that it had a negative impact on their mental health. The hormone responsible for the increase in mental health problems is believed to be progesterone. Danielle, age 31, said her side effects were “completely debilitating and terrifying. I went from being fine to having suicidal thoughts within six months.” She explained that she had never had any problems with mental health before she began taking the pill.
Vicky Spratt, editor-in-large of Grazia, likewise had negative side effects. “I remember thinking ‘if this is what the rest of my life is going to be like, I don’t want to live it’,” she said in the documentary. The Independent notes that numerous studies, including one of 800,000 women in Sweden, have confirmed these findings, linking the birth control pills to poor mental health.
Part of the problem, according to Spratt, is that women are not being adequately warned about the risks they are taking when they take the birth control pill. The only side effect listed on NHS pamphlets, Spratt said, is ‘mood changes.’ “What does that even mean? It could refer to anything,” she said. “I think the NHS is sticking with ‘mood changes’ because they’re nervous about women being deterred from taking the pill and unwanted pregnancies rising as a result. It surprises me that despite known links between progesterone and depression, the NHS aren’t looking into it and, as a result, we don’t know how many women are affected by this in the UK.”
The goal of this documentary is not to dissuade women from taking birth control, but to bring attention to the issue and encourage more research, so women can be informed of the risks and truly give informed consent. Dr. Zoe Williams, who presented the documentary, also pointed out that birth control is often not taken the way other medications are, out of necessity to prevent disease or treat an illness. “Therefore side effects that significantly impact on quality of life, in a negative way, are not acceptable.” she said.