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That Birth Control-Depression Link? It’s More Dubious Than Headlines Say

birth-control

Science is great. It discovered vaccines, essentially eliminating diseases that had plagued previous generations (some of which are making a comeback, but that’s a different story). It allowed us to land people on the moon. It helps us to understand how and why we’re destroying our planet so that we can hopefully do something about it. But for us laypeople, trying to keep up with all the new — and often contradictory — science can be overwhelming. And, if I’m being honest, a little anxiety inducing.

Some studies say having glasses of red wine is good for your heart; others say no, it’s terrible. We’ve been told drinking in small amounts is A-OK during pregnancy, and we’ve also been told that any alcohol at all puts the baby at-risk. A study last year implied that cutting coffee during pregnancy was no longer enough, because even consuming caffeine while trying to conceive could increase the likelihood of miscarriage.

And so last month when new research was published in JAMA Psychiatry that found a link between birth control and depression, the headlines were everywhere. “Birth control causes depression!” they read. And women all over Twitter and my newsfeeds were like, “Yes, I knew it! Finally, an answer.” And hey, maybe it is an answer for some people.

But this is the challenge when people take scientific studies and try to make them digestible and understandable for the general public. Nuanced findings become watered down into sweeping generalizations. In terms of the birth control and depression study, a new piece in the New York Times argues that a closer look at the data shows it’s way more complicated than just “birth control causes depression.”

The study did find an increased risk for depression among birth control users. BUT. It also found that the risk peaked six months after the start of contraception, and that it was highest in adolescents and decreased with age. Not only that, there were a ton of limitations to the research, making it great new information, but not the be all and end all when it comes to finding an answer about what triggers depression in women.

Taking these findings and reducing them to a clickable headline does a disservice to everyone: the scientists who spent years on the research and the people who may cut out something that benefits them out of fear or misinformation, especially. If you’re anything like me, someone who doesn’t currently want to be pregnant (because two is enough, thankyouverymuch) but that is also prone to depression, it can be tempting to demonize all birth control based on the new research. But jumping to conclusions isn’t the answer, either.

Parsing the fact from the fiction from the hyperbole when it comes to science. And that makes sense, because most of us aren’t trained to dissect scientific data. But that’s why we (hopefully) have doctors that we trust. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by healthcare decisions and the headlines filling your newsfeeds, it’s always worth enlisting the help of your doctor. They can reassure you if you’re worrying about nothing, or help you find alternative options if what you’re doing isn’t working for you.

A compassionate expert to bounce my anxious thoughts off of is a godsend. Because being left alone in my own head (with all these catastrophic-sounding medical headlines) never leads to anything good. Science: it’s awesome, but really should come with a disclaimer for the sake of worrywarts everywhere.


This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.


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