In a typical day, the brainspace of Amherst stu- dents is taken up by many things: stress about the upcoming Econ Midterm or Anthro paper, curiosity about the next time Val will have Egg McCharlies, excitement about this weekend’s mixer, and countless other thoughts, ranging from mundane to profound. But there’s one subject taking up a significant amount of airtime in the brains of a subset of Amherst students, which other subsets are, it often seems, blissfully unaware. This subject is birth control.
According to a study by the Guttmacher In- stitute, a nonprofit which generates research and policy focused on sexual and reproductive health, 62 percent of women between ages 15 and 44— the range considered to encompass women of reproductive age—are currently using some form of birth control. Many factors affect this statistic when we are focusing simply on college-age women. The majority of Amherst students are unmarried, and being unmarried decreases the likelihood of using birth control to 42 percent. On the other hand, the majority of Amherst College students are young, and teenagers and young adults are more likely to use birth control than older women; 82 percent of teenagers currently use some type of birth control. Education about birth control, like that provided to Amherst students by the SHEs, also increases the likelihood of people using it.
There are many other factors that play a part in whether or not a person decides to go on birth control. A key one is, of course, whether or not that person is currently sexually active. According to a New York Magazine survey, 41 percent of women and 49 percent of men in college are not sexually active; this number may be lower or higher at Amherst College specifically. But what this whole jumble of numbers boils down to is the fact that there are a significant portion of Amherst students who are sexually active and who use birth control.
So, what’s the big deal? Why is this topic taking up the minds of so many people, specifically women, at Amherst College? Firstly, when choosing what type of birth control to use, women have a number of options. These include the pill, the patch, the ring, the IUD, the shot, etc… The implant and the hormonal and copper IUDs are all inserted by doctors, and last anywhere from 3-12 years. The implant and the hormonal IUD both use the hormones progestin and estrogen. The pill, another commonly used type of birth control is taken daily and also uses these hormones, as does the ring, which is inserted by the user.
There are upsides to all these methods (a key one being not getting pregnant). Types of birth control can help clear up acne; other types can make periods more regular and less painful. But there are a number of seriously worrisome, and not all that uncommon, side effects. I recently received a pamphlet at Northampton OBGYN, created by the Reproductive Health Access Project, which listed different birth control options along with the pros and cons of each one. I was particularly interested in the cons side. There were the typical and possible side effects of medication, like nausea and headaches, but there are also a number of far more serious side effects. Among those listed are hair or skin changes, weight gain, injury to the uterus, more cramps and heavier periods, changes in sex drive (which seems ironic to me), and even depression. (To give a salient comparison, the most common side effects from Viagra, are a headache, an upset stomach, and congestion.)
The detrimental side effects of birth control are far from uncommon. This summer I switched off the type of birth control I had been using, the NuvaRing, because I had concerns about the way it was affecting my mood. I felt like it made me more angry and irritable, and even caused bouts of depression. I talked to my doctor about this, and she told me it was extremely unlikely that the NuvaRing would be the cause of these feelings. I looked at NuvaRing informational websites and saw barely any mention of mood swings. I thought that there was simply something wrong with me.Then, in a moment of desperation, I googled ‘NuvaRing mood swings’ and scrolled down past the official pages. Towards the bottom of the page, I found a question posed to a women’s health forum, asking whether other people had experienced emotional problems when they’d started on the NuvaRing. There were more than 100 comments from different women, detailing the experiences they’d had with depression, anxiety, spells of anger and irritability, and innumerable other unpleasant things, while on the NuvaRing. I scrolled through other pages and saw my own experiences reflected back at me hundreds of times. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t alone. I was simply experiencing the failure of something that was supposed to help me. I stopped using the NuvaRing immediately, and began to feel better shortly after.
After having this experience, I began to talk with my friends about it, and I found that many people had undergone similar things. I had a friend who had an almost identical experience on the NuvaRing, and another who’d experienced mood swings while using the hormonal IUD. The more aware I’ve become of this phenomenon, the more it’s become clear to me that adverse effects from birth control aren’t at all uncommon. I want to be clear that these events are in no way scientific conclusions—these are individual perspectives. There have been an number of studies done on the effect of birth control on mood, and the results are largely inconclusive. Some studies suggest that birth control has little to no effect on mood, although it says that “mood is most likely to deteriorate in women with a history of depression.” Other studies have found that birth control has a mostly positive effect on mental health.
It is important to note that some women love their birth control. One student who I interviewed gushed about the pill, explaining, “I have been on the pill since age thirteen to regulate my periods. Then, at a certain point, the pill also prevented me from getting pregnant or something! Without this regular dose of hormones, my life would run off the rails! Thanks, birth control pill!” While most women sound less like a TV commercial when speaking about how they feel about their birth control, many feel similarly enthusiastic. Most feel somewhere in between: “I have the Mirena, the 5-year hormonal IUD,” one student explained, “I love it and it’s also pretty annoying.”
Ultimately, the experiences of people who use birth control vary, but one truly uniting factor is that amount of brainspace that thoughts about it take up. I asked a room full of women how frequently they thought about birth control, and the answer was, for the most part “every single day.” And yet, conversations about birth control—its failures, its triumphs—are shockingly absent from mainstream media, and from the discourse of those who the topic does not directly impact. Think of one of the many brilliant women you know here at Amherst. How much time does she spend every day worrying about her birth control, or feeling that she’s alone in her experiences? Think about how much could she be writing, creating, changing, with the brainspace these thoughts take up. We owe it to these millions of women to learn about this topic, and to begin to have these conversations.