Does the Pill Make You Depressed? A New Study Says No But Some Experts Disagree

Though many women have said that hormonal contraceptive methods can affect their mood, research has shown mixed results. A new study found that young women using the birth control pill and other hormonal methods were no more likely to be depressed than other young women. Other experts, however, are skeptical of the study’s approach and results.

Researchers looked at data from 6,654 sexually active women between the ages of 25 and 34 who had participated in four surveys between 1994 and 2008. The women were divided into two groups: those who used hormonal methods such as the pill, the patch, the ring, or an injection, and those who used other methods, including non-hormonal intrauterine devices (IUD), diaphragms, and condoms.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found there were some differences between the two groups. Specifically, women who used hormonal methods were younger, less likely to have children, less likely to smoke, and more likely to have graduated from college. The women also seemed to be more health conscious—they were more likely to get regular checkups from doctors and dentists and more likely to engage in individual sports like running.

Even once these differences were accounted for, researchers found that women on hormonal contraception were actually less likely to report symptoms of depression in the week preceding the survey. Moreover, they were 32 percent less likely to have had high levels of depressive symptoms within the previous year and 63 percent less likely to have attempted suicide in the previous year.

The researchers acknowledge, however, that women who are already depressed are less likely to use hormonal contraception. Still, they believe their findings are important. Katherine Keyes, lead author of the study, told Reuters, “This counters somewhat some of the prevailing wisdom that hormone contraceptive use in general is associated with adverse mental health outcomes in women. When you look at it on a national scale, certainly there’s no evidence that at a population level hormonal contraceptive use is associated with an increased risk of mood problems.”

In fact, Keyes and her colleagues want to do further research on whether hormonal contraception could actually improve women’s moods by helping to even out menstrual cycle mood swings and what the mechanism behind this would be.

Some experts, however, are skeptical of the study’s results. Dr. Ellen Wiebe, the medical director of the Willow Women’s Clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia, wrote a commentary that was published along with the study. She pointed out that the “non-user” group likely included many women who quit taking hormonal contraception due to mood-related side effects. She also believes that the authors used the wrong measure of depression. She told Reuters, “A screen for clinical depression does not capture the actual problems that we see with the mood side effects with hormonal contraception, and the same thing with the sexual side effects.” Weibe would have liked to see the authors ask about irritability, low sex drive, and difficulty getting aroused.

While this study may show that there is no increase in depression on a population level, many women do experience mood changes when they begin to use hormonal contraceptive methods. Clinicians often suggest that they wait a few months as these symptoms may simply go away. It is also possible that changing methods or even brands can help alleviate some of these symptoms. What is most important is that women don’t abandon their method without first talking to a health-care provider and choosing a new or backup method.

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  • XKCD

    You know what would make me depressed?
    Getting pregnant by accident.

    • HeilMary1

      And suffering deadly, disfiguring and bankrupting complications from that unwanted pregnancy like too many women that I know/knew.

  • Amanda Kazarian

    As someone with ADHD and disthymia, I can honestly say that the pill really hasn’t had an affect on my mood disorder. In fact, I was at my worst a few years ago and the antidepressants really help. If anything the pill has given me very light periods with no cramps, clear skin, and thicker hair. Having to take care of myself from day to day can be a struggle, the pill keeps a vulnerable person out of the equation by keeping me child-free.

    • Arekushieru

      Amanda, I’m glad to know someone who suffers from dysthymia just like I do!

  • cjvg

    Actually the BC pill made me feel more level and less at the mercy of my hormones.
    I think the main reason that so many women react so negatively to the critic currently aimed at the BC pill is because it feels suspiciously like another poorly hidden campaign at outlawing the still most popular and widely used BC for our own good (cause women can not make their own decisions you know, it’s those uncontrolled hormones)
    Books and articles critiquing the BC pill would be a lot more genuine as having women’s best interest in mind if they would balance their negatives with the undeniable and sometimes not very well known benefits.
    If our education system, the public sphere and our doctors where not so incredibly poor at outlining birth control options and its pro’s and con’s we would not have this problem.
    Doctors especially do not even attempt to have meaningful discussion about birth control although it is one of the most far reaching and longest used medications women will use during their life time!
    Just think back at what happened when you asked your doctor for birth control?, he/she usually just started writing and hands you a script for their current brand of BC pill du jour .
    No questions about what kind of birth control you want, which ones are available or if there are any physical symptoms other then pregnancy you are trying to treat.
    Same if you want to change your birth control, mostly they just write down another name on their little pad, no questions why, what are your symptoms, have you considered….
    Compare this to an European experience, I remember when I was at the doctor with my mom (i don’t know why i was there but I was about 9 or 10 at the time) and she was about 35 on BC pills and a smoker.
    After whatever we came for was handled he started a conversation with my mom that since she was a smoker and on birth control he felt that she should either quit smoking (which he recommended) or find other birth control since she was getting closer to 40 and he had some severe concerns about the combination of the two.
    He then proceeded to give her non hormonal options and remind her that it was not just her who must take the responsibility since my father could also have a vasectomy since she had been shouldering the responsibility the majority of their marriage (this was a very stern, old fashioned, approx. 60+ year old male doctor who was present at my MOTHERS birth as well as mine and my sibling)
    All this was matter of fact discussed without any embarrassment or hemming and hawing in front of her 10 year old daughter, i thought nothing of it except that i was hoping she and my father would finally quit smoking in the car (always made me sick as a dog)since the doctor said it was bad (that is the reason i remembered this conversation so well)

    • MaiaDoe

      In Europe, I see the pill attacked too, not too much in media (only the dumb “feminine” sites about fashion and parenting that take their topics from discussions on message boards), but very much on FB and message boards etc., simply between normal people. But non-hormonal IUD is usually recommended as an alternative, so I think it might be some propaganda started by companies who sell them, because several years ago, there wasn’t any IUDs for nulliparous women available.
      The women who had bad experience are very loud, while the happy pill users don’t have much reasons to say something. And if they do, they are attacked in “let’s see in five years, when you are infertile and miserable!”. This one makes me mad, people speak about “aunt of mine who used the pill for twenty years and now she’s infertile” – yeah, and the pill caused that, not the fact that she must be at least 35.

      • cjvg

        I have not encountered this, but i’m no fan of facebook and do not have one.
        None of my friends have even breathed a word about this so maybe it is only under a younger generation?
        Personally I have used the pill at least since age 11 (debilitating painful periods) and went of it at age 30 (that would make for 18 years of unbroken pill use) Within 1 month after stopping the pill I was pregnant, I barely even had one period!
        So much for all these infertility anecdotes, here is one to counter those.
        Also the pill has been in such wide use any mega study can easily proof if this is an actual consequence. No one was ever able to do so regardless of many enthusiastic tries by catholic “health” organizations ever since the BC pill first became available!
        By the way, is this northern Europe?

        • Arekushieru

          Pretty much what happened to another friend of mine. Although that pregnancy was planned.

          • cjvg

            Ours was not unplanned perse, we just did not expect it that quickly

    • Arekushieru

      I’m going off topic, again, here, but my brother has asthma and allergies, although they don’t affect him nearly as much as they used to. But, growing up, if we were driving in the car, in the middle of winter, my parents would only open the windows a little bit to smoke (they both smoked heavily while we were growing up, then at alternating and sometimes similar intervals, they would quit then start back up, again). My brother quite often got sick during these occasions. And that was the most important reason of the many, that my brother and I never smoke.

  • radicalhw

    I am one of the women who stopped taking the pill because of severe mood changes, and it makes me ill to think that my experience could be used to dissuade women from a safe and effective BC method. Acetaminophen is a more dangerous drug than the pill, and it’s available over the counter! Both of my kids are allergic to penicillin, but that doesn’t mean I want to ban it! Dammit, I think I am having a mood change right now…..! Arghhhh!

    BTW, I highly recommend the copper IUD. It was what I used to have my children by choice.

  • Ashley

    Not having periods (because of birth control) makes me overall happier because when I did they were horrendous.

  • MaiaDoe

    “She pointed out that the “non-user” group likely included many women who quit taking hormonal contraception due to mood-related side effects.”
    This, and then there are women who have cycle-related mood swings, and IMO they are less likely to quit taking hormonal contraception (and opt for IUD or tubal for convenience and money).
    I used to feel quite miserable around ovulation, and my academic performance was worse, which I perceived and it made me angry that I need 2-3 days to read one chapter in a textbook, while week ago I’ve read different chapter in the same textbook in several hours.
    And period meant 3-4 days of pain, vomiting (aka dehydratation and ionic disbalance) and bad sleep (do I have to explain this one?), plus break in physical activity and overall daily routine – all the “little” factors that push towards depression.
    I guess that the amount of women who has problems from using the pill is roughly the same as the amount of women who has problems from NOT using it, hence the results.