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Hormonal Birth Control Linked to Depression

A massive Danish study is makingwaves for establishing a link between hormonal birth control use and depression. More women using a daily pill, vaginal ring, patch, and the lately much-discussed intrauterine device began using antidepressants or were diagnosed with clinical depression compared to their counterparts not using hormonal contraceptives, University of Copenhagen researchers found by looking at data from over one million Danish women.

Some commentators — like activist Holly Grigg-Spall, author of the anti-hormonal birth control book Sweetening the Pill — have identified the study as overdue recognition of women’s lived experience on birth control, which has long involved reports of psychological changes that can drive women off of these options. But medical science on hormonal birth control — which has been short on long-term, extensive studies — has produced mixed results, including one 2013 paper suggesting that hormonal birth control use protects against depression. The Copenhagen researchers note that previous studies may have underestimated depressive effects by excluding women who abandon hormonal birth control precisely for its effects on mood.

The safety of hormonal contraception often gets locked in a feminist-argument bind, between those like Grigg-Spall who believe women are forced to take under-studied but lucrative medications, and critics of that view who maintain that options like the pill are crucial and empowering for women’s health. The Copenhagen researchers tentatively conclude they have shown hormonal birth control to pose psychological risks. But they fall back on the researcher’s default stance: calling for yet more studies, in this case to continue navigating the complexity of hormones, mood, and women’s reproductive health.