- Birth control can have serious side effects, including migraines, chronic pain, and mental health issues.
- Many women say their doctor didn’t tell them about birth control options and risks.
- Advocates and experts say the medical system does not adequately meet the needs of women.
This article contains references to suicide and mental health.
Faye Kent describes her birth control experience as the worst years of her life.
After attending a doctor’s appointment due to irregular periods when she was 18, she was advised to start taking the combined estrogen and progesterone pill.
She was not sexually active at the time, did not particularly want to take birth control and says she was given the prescription without any real discussion or advice on other options.
When she was 21, another doctor told her she shouldn’t take estrogen because of a family history of breast cancer, and she switched to the progesterone-only pill.
“That’s when the worst years of my life started,” she said.
“I was so violently depressed and had suicidal thoughts for no reason…when I got sad, I was really sad for about five days, which is not normal.”
When she stopped taking the pill, her mental health improved almost immediately, she said.
Years later, she discovered that she suffered from sleep apnea, polycystic ovary syndrome and insulin resistance, which she says are the reasons for her irregular cycle.
She says she feels “extremely” abandoned by the medical system.
“When you’re 18, you have very limited critical thinking skills, and I definitely trust my doctor,” she said.
“They literally didn’t even try to investigate, they just put me straight on the pill…it was a band-aid solution and I didn’t even know about these three other chronic health issues that were happening in my body . “
Faye Kent says she feels “extremely” disappointed with the medical system over her chronic health issues and the birth control pill. Source: Provided / faye kent
What are the side effects of contraception?
Contraceptive drugs and devices – including the pill, intrauterine devices and implants – are among the most common forms of healthcare in the country, but many women experience a wide range of side effects.
These can include weight fluctuations, irregular bleeding, changes in skin and hair, mood swings and mental health issues, migraines and chronic pain.
On Tuesday, 100 women filed a class action lawsuit in Victoria against companies involved in a contraceptive implant they say left them in debilitating pain, with some saying they had no choice but to have a hysterectomy.
In 2022, two class action lawsuits involving defective pelvic mesh products — items inserted transvaginally to support weakened tissue — resulted in a $300 million settlement.
In both cases, the women reported what they describe as extreme side effects and complications, including heavy bleeding, chronic pain and depression.
Medical professionals say contraceptives are generally safe, but some advocates and patients say the system routinely fails women and doesn’t educate them enough about options and risks.
“Let down by the medical system”
Faye feels she has not received adequate care and that young women in general are not taken seriously by doctors.
“The fact that I was a young woman meant that the doctors made all these assumptions without really investigating…I am now 10 years behind in getting the medical treatment I needed,” said she declared.
“You should be able to trust your doctors to take your case seriously.”
Kristin Perissinotto had a similar experience when she went to see her university doctor at age 20, and became interested in the pill both for contraception and to regulate her menstrual cycle.
She was given a prescription for the combined pill and says she received very little advice or questioning other than a blood pressure check.
“I started bleeding really heavily, and it was kind of unusual blood…I was convinced I was bleeding inside or something,” she said.
“On the mental and emotional side, I had never had any issues before…but I got a lot quicker to get emotional, I never cried as much as I did on this specific pill…it was very unlike to me.”
She went back to the doctor, but says she was told to “wait”.
Kristin Perissinotto says she is disappointed with the medical system after her experience with the birth control pill. Source: Provided / Kristin Perissinotto
When she went to see another doctor, she was told she should never have taken this type of pill and was recommended an alternative option.
She said that while it validated having the second doctor’s opinion, she felt betrayed by her first experience.
“At that point, I felt pretty betrayed by the medical system,” she said.
“I knew it wasn’t right, I had spoken to a medical professional about it who I thought would be empathetic and she basically told me ‘it’s going to take some time, s’ get used to it’.”
Lauren Anthes is the CEO of Women’s Health Matters, a leading organization that advocates for better health outcomes for women, particularly in the area of reproductive health.
She told SBS News that the court cases and numerous side effects are “really concerning” and represent broader issues around women’s health and contraception.
“We know that women – particularly when they are young, but throughout their lives – are often not presented with all the options or all the information needed to make informed decisions,” she said. .
Ms Anthes thinks the side effects of contraception – as well as women’s health issues in general – are often not taken seriously and are accepted as ‘normal’.
The oral contraceptive pill was approved for distribution in Australia in 1961. Credit: Tim Ireland/PA/Alamy
“We often take for granted or minimize side effects as ‘mild’, things like period pain… there’s nothing normal about having severe period pain, and it’s the same with forms of contraception and side effects.
“If a person starts taking birth control pills, it’s not normal to have severe migraines, that’s something that needs to be explored…it’s just assumed that if women want to take some form of birth control, they will be ready to accept these side effects, which is not acceptable.”
Is contraception safe?
Associate Professor Gino Pecoraro, president of the National Association of Specialized Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says contraceptives are generally as safe as other medications.
“Anything can have a side effect, you can have a severe allergic reaction to any drug,” he said.
He said contraceptive drugs undergo extensive testing before they are available in Australia.
“For every method of birth control allowed to be used in Australia, people can be sure it works; you won’t get anything approved by the department unless they have good data that has followed women for years showing that it works.”
“They have to go through a number of international studies before it can be approved, and if it’s a new product, they also have post-market surveys where they continue to get information on a particular drug.”
However, he said there was “no doubt” about reproductive care and women’s health was under-resourced.
“Our Australian government has underinvested in women’s health for generations,” he said.
Dr Pecoraro cited health insurance policies, access to pregnancy termination services, contraceptive costs, the “collapse” of maternity services in remote and regional areas and the lack of support for management of menopause as examples of medical misogyny.
He also pointed to the lack of menopause discharge or menstrual discharge, and the process of diagnosing and treating endometriosis as problematic.
“Every step of the way, when you’re looking at women’s health, there’s an underinvestment,” he said.
“Something has to be done about it.”
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