New study linking birth control and depression may be misleading

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Photo by Theresa Shim
Photo by Theresa Shim

Danish researchers published a study outlining the relationship between young women who take hormone-regulating contraceptives and the onset of depression and anxiety Sept. 28. The study included young women nation-wide and data was collected from women aged 15-34 across the nation for over a decade.

While this study has been causing a lot of discussion and apprehension among young women using hormonal contraceptives (i.e the Pill, Nuva Ring, Depo shot), it can be easy for misinterpretations to appear when such a variety of information and opinions are available. Imprint spoke with registered pharmacist and UW alumnus John Walsh to help get answers most important to university aged women and sift through the pharma-jargon of the study.

What common misconceptions about this study are being propagated?

The biggest misconception is the actual risk. For example, you will see a lot of articles state, correctly, that this study shows that [women] 15-19 years of age have an 80 per cent increased risk of depression if they take an oral contraceptive. That sounds big, but said another way, this study shows that younger women who used oral contraceptives had 1.8 times the rate of depression than non-users. This is a relative risk ratio.

Specific to this study, a 15- to 19-year-old female who has never used an oral contraceptive had a baseline incident rate of approximately one per cent for developing depression. For women using oral contraceptives, this rate went up to 1.8 per cent — an 80 per cent increase. What we have to keep in mind is this is just one study. There are multiple studies that also claim the opposite, that oral contraceptives prevent mood disorders. In the end, this new study just adds another piece to the bigger picture. And remember — correlation does not mean causation. This study does not prove hormonal contraceptives play a role in the development of depression.”

So you’ve seen lots of other studies about this information, was it something you covered in pharmacy school?

We certainly studied contraception and oral contraceptives extensively during pharmacy school. Oral contraceptives are common medicines so they were reviewed quite thoroughly. This is definitely not new information. Conflicting studies and opposing views on the pill and mood have been around for a long time. For fun I did a quick PubMed search and found an article titled, ‘Oral contraceptives and depression: impact, prevalence and cause.’ The article was published in 1981.”

So university-age women don’t need to be concerned about the findings of this article?

No, students have enough to worry about. The main point young women should take away from this study is emphasis on being self-aware and to report any changes you notice when you start a new medication, depression or otherwise. Your prescribing physician or nurse will be well-versed in what you should be aware of when you start a new medication. Feel free to ask them any questions you have and to report all side effects, no matter how incidental they may seem.”

What is the easiest and fastest way students can get more accurate information about contraception?

“Honestly, you might not think of it first, but you should ask your pharmacist! We study medications and their effects for years and then work with them day in and day out. We are more accessible than most family doctors or walk-in clinics. Pharmacists are a great, but, for some reason, little-used health resource for the general public.”

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