This week in women’s health and hysteria

One of the big issues I’ve been thinking and talking about last week is the contraceptive pill, following the BBC Horizons documentary looking at how safe this popular form of contraception really is.

This was a great, in-depth piece of TV from Dr Zoe Williams, digging into the truth behind the headlines about all the potentials risks – as well as pointing out some of the lesser known benefits of the pill.

What it really highlighted for me was the importance of GPs and nurses working with women, to provide them with all the information and options they need to take truly informed choices.

I shared some of my own experiences on Twitter – click through to read the full thread.

But, as my friend Vicky Spratt writes in the Grazia piece below, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area – particularly when it comes to the mental health side effects that some women experience on the pill.

Hormonal Contraception And Mental Health: How Worried Should You Be?

Vicky’s been working on this issue for the last two years, after suffering severe mental health side effects herself. She wrote for Grazia ahead of the documentary airing:

The young woman who contacted me this week because she felt dismissed by her GP said she felt ‘completely mental as soon as my doctor said the pill caused no mood swings or depression. I instantly shut up, because I felt essentially that I was in an unsafe place to share my concerns, they wouldn’t be taken seriously’. Misinformation can be dangerous so it’s important to get it right.

‘The really important thing is not to over egg the pudding’ Michael says ‘we don’t want to have loads of women coming off the pill because they assume their depression is caused by it but, equally, we should listen to what women are telling us.’

It is both true that the pill can help to stabilise some women’s moods and have a negative effect on the mental health of others. And so, the next time you read a headline which says ‘the pill causes depression’ or, equally, one which says ‘the pill doesn’t cause depression’ remember that no two women are exactly the same. When it comes to female hormones, those two statements can be and are true at the same time.

Contraception is about principal. It’s a cornerstone of women’s freedom. So is it too much to ask that we can have that and engage in a proper conversation about its potential side effects at the same time?

When gynecologists gaslight women

Also this week, Sian Norris wrote for News Mavens about obstetric violence – the horrifyingly prevalent “last acceptable form of violence against women”, which we also highlighted in our 11 November roundup.

“This is what happens when you like men too much.” These words were spoken by a Zagreb doctor to a young woman during a surgical abortion. The woman then had her womb scraped without anesthetic, while the surgeon joked with his medical team about her sex life.

Her devastating testimony is recorded in a complaint to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right To Health by the Croatian Parents’ Rights organization RODA. The organization invited women to submit their experiences of enduring reproductive healthcare without anesthetic under the campaign banner “Breaking The Silence” (#PrekinimoŠutnju). In the space of a weekend, they received 400 handwritten submissions.

“The stories involved women who had biopsies on their uterus, cervix or vagina without anesthetic,” RODA’s Head of Reproductive Rights Daniela Drandic told me over the phone.

“There were stories of women who had been through medically assisted fertility treatments and had their eggs removed without anesthetic. Women being sutured after childbirth, having their placenta manually removed, and surgical abortions or miscarriages, all without anesthetic.”

In some shocking cases, Drandic explained, “women were offered a shot of hard liquor before a procedure to make it easier.” One woman was scolded by her doctor while having samples taken from her reproductive organs. He said: “you didn’t cry while having sex, so shut up now.”

This is the reality of “obstetric violence” in Europe. From the UK to Ukraine, women are failed by the medical establishment and forced to endure procedures relating to their reproductive health without adequate pain relief. In some cases, the women’s experiences led to further complications such as torn uteruses, and PTSD.

Women heart attack patients twice as likely to die in hospital as condition is seen as a ‘male disease’

It’s not the first time this particular health inequality has been raised – but a new study in England and Wales, funded by the British Heart Foundation, has found that women are less likely than men to receive adequate care, and considerably more likely to die, when having a heart attack.

As The Telegraph reports:

Women who suffer heart attacks are more than twice as likely to die in hospital than men because the condition is seen as a male problem, experts have said.

More than 8,200 women in England and Wales could have survived their heart attacks had they simply been given the same quality of treatment as men, new research has found.

Researchers at the University of Leeds said the actual number of lives lost to unequal care is likely to be much higher, as they did not include all hospital admissions which occurred over the 10-year study period.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation – which part-funded the research, said: “We need to tackle the false perception that heart attacks are only a male health issue.

“This leads to inadequate care for women – both at the time of and after heart attacks – with fatal consequences.”

If we continue to ignore how gender affects mental health, we will never solve this crisis

The NHS Children’s Mental Health Survey published this week showed that one in five young women have self-harmed or attempted suicide, and girls aged 17-19 are twice as likely to have a mental health disorder as boys the same age.

The overall stats, showing that one in eight children and young people suffer from mental health problems, are alarming enough – but the stats on young women’s mental health are particularly striking.

Writing in The Telegraph, Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of women’s mental health charity Agenda, writes:

The drivers of poor mental health are complicated, but there are particular things that we know affect girls disproportionately.

They face growing sexualisation, pressures around sex and relationships, not to mention the alarming levels of sexual and other forms of violence they experience at home, at school and on our streets.

For example, Agenda’s research shows that a quarter (24 per cent) of women with a mental health problem experienced abuse as a child. The figure is nine per cent for men. So for women and girls the link between violence, abuse and mental health is more pronounced.

Women’s mental health problems don’t suddenly appear years after abuse or violence is perpetrated – the trauma is there right from the beginning, when they are still children. Without support, their mental health can  worsen, they may have very low self esteem, using drugs and alcohol to cope – and this can be the start of a downward spiral.

Despite some positive attempts to look at how mental health specifically affects women and girls, like the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce co-chaired by Agenda and mental health minister Jackie Doyle-Price MP, there is still a tendency to ignore what the data is telling us and the role gender plays.

This is not about girls versus boys. This is about recognising the different drivers and experiences of poor mental health among both girls and boys, so that we can respond appropriately.

And finally…

It was yet another week where I couldn’t fit everything into just one roundup post, but these stories are also well worth a read if you’re interested in the issues Hysterical Women seeks to raise: