Breaking Myths: Oral Contraceptive Pill Linked to Lower Depression Rates

Contraceptive Birth Control Pills

A study found that women currently using oral contraceptive pills report lower rates of depression compared to former users. The study, involving 6,239 American women, suggests that alleviating pregnancy concerns and a potential ‘survivor bias’ could explain this difference.

Researchers analyzed data from 6,239 women in the United States in a new study.

A recent study revealed that women using oral contraceptive pills (OCP) are less likely to experience depression.

The study analyzed data from 6,239 women in the United States, aged between 18 and 55. It found that the occurrence of major depression in current OCP users was notably lower at 4.6%, in contrast to 11.4% in those who had previously used OCPs.

The study was led by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), alongside experts from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the University of California, Davis.

Potential Explanations and Observations

The researchers suggest two possible explanations for their findings, which are contrary to a commonly held belief that OCP can cause depression.

One is that taking the pill can remove concerns about unwanted pregnancy, therefore helping to improve the mental health of OCP users. It is also possible the results could be influenced by “survivor bias”, where women who experience signs of depression while using OCP stop taking it, moving them into the category of former users.

The cross-sectional study, which used data collected by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, controlled for demographic characteristics, chronic conditions, and the use of antidepressants.

In both users and former users, widowed, divorced or separated women, obese women, or those with a history of cancer were more likely to report depression. In addition, in former users, depression was more commonly reported in women who were Black or Hispanic, were smokers, had lower levels of education, or were experiencing poverty.

Implications and Comments

Lead author Dr Julia Gawronska, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “Contraception is a crucial component of preventive health care. Most women tolerate taking the oral contraceptive pill without experiencing depressive symptoms but there is a subset of women that may experience adverse mood side effects and even develop depression, and the reasons are not entirely clear.

“Unlike some previous studies, we found that women currently taking the oral contraceptive pill were much less likely to report clinically relevant depression compared to women who previously took the pill.

“Taking the pill could provide positive mental health benefits for some women, simply by removing their concerns about becoming pregnant. The ‘survivor effect’ could also play a part, with women who experience symptoms of depression more likely to discontinue taking it, placing them into the group of former users.

“However, stopping taking the pill without a suitable alternative increases the risk of unintended pregnancy. It is important that women are fully supported, provided with full information, and offered alternative forms of contraception if necessary.”

Reference: “Association of oral contraceptive pill use and depression among US women” by Julia Gawronska, Catherine Meads, Lee Smith, Chao Cao, Nan Wang and Susan Walker, 11 October 2023, Journal of Affective Disorders.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2023.10.041

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