Understanding the Latest Study on the Link Between Depression & Birth Control

Feb 26, 2018 at 11:08 a.m. ET
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It seems like there's a new study on the link between depression and different types of birth control every year or so, and 2018 is no different. New research out of The Ohio State University Wexner Center found there's no evidence to support a link between hormonal birth control and depression.

But, wait: Wasn't there another recent study finding exactly the opposite? Yes, there certainly was — it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry and put forth that women who took hormonal birth control had higher rates of depression than those who did not.

So how is this new study different? To begin with, it's a meta-analysis of thousands of studies on the mental health effects of contraceptives published over the past 30 years instead of specific population-based research, like the 2016 study. They included data tied to various contraception methods — including injections, implants and pills — as well as their effects on postpartum women, adolescents and women with a history of depression.

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Also, Dr. Brett Worly, lead author of the new study and OB-GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told CNN, "[T]he study last year was a population health study that observed a relationship between birth control and mood. We didn't look at mood changes and feeling down because those are difficult to measure. We looked specifically at depression." And in his research, Worly and his colleagues did not find sufficient evidence to prove that hormonal contraception increases rates of depression.

Being able to control if, how and when to have children is extremely important to people of reproductive age who have a uterus, and if a large category of contraception could result in depression, it would be a major setback and potentially present a difficult choice between maintaining reproductive autonomy and looking after their mental health.

"Depression is a concern for a lot of women when they're starting hormonal contraception, particularly when they're using specific types that have progesterone," Worly said in a statement. "Based on our findings, this side effect shouldn't be a concern for most women, and they should feel comfortable knowing they're making a safe choice."

And we're talking about large numbers of women — most have tried at least one method of contraception in their lives, with nearly 37 million women in the United States currently using birth control. Of those, 67 percent have opted for a nonpermanent hormonal method, such as an oral contraceptive pill, but among those, 30 percent have stopped using them because of the potential side effects.

So how do you explain the results of the 2016 study vs. anecdotal evidence suggesting some hormonal birth control could lead to depression? According to Worly, adolescents and pregnant people will "sometimes have a higher risk of depression, not necessarily because of the medicine they're taking, but because they have that risk to start with." In these cases, he noted it's important that the patients have a positive relationship with their health care provider to ensure they get the appropriate mental health screening done, regardless of what type of medication they take.

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“We live in a media-savvy age where if one or a few people have severe side effects, all of a sudden, that gets amplified to every single person,” Worly said in a statement. “The biggest misconception is that birth control leads to depression. For most patients that’s just not the case.”

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