What Does the Depression and Birth Control Study Mean for You?

Probably not much, says Brigham and Women's Hospital doctor Caryn Ruth Dutton.

birth control pills

Birth control photo via istock.com/crankyT

In late September, a group of Danish researchers published a study detailing an association between hormonal contraceptives—such as birth control pills, vaginal rings, and some IUDs—and depression, particularly among adolescents. The study is considered the first to strongly suggest a link between contraception and depression.

The research, which examined the medical records of more than a million Danish women between the ages of 15 and 34, showed that women using combination (estrogen and progestin) birth control pills were 23 percent more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than non-users. Women on progestin-only pills were 34 percent more likely. Teenagers using birth control pills? A startling 80 percent more likely, or more.

Users of hormonal contraceptive patches, rings, and intrauterine devices saw higher rates, too.

In the days following the study’s release, women took to social media with force. Many expressed relief that they were not alone; others, anger that science had taken so long to address what many women already suspected.

What does this study mean for you? We turned to Caryn Ruth Dutton, medical director of the gynecology practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to talk it through.

The study shows correlation, not causation.

Dutton says birth control could cause depression in some women, but this study does not expressly prove that it does.

“Some neurochemical processes are influenced by hormones—both hormones naturally present and ones that are administered—so, yes, there is a potential explanation for the effect described by this study,” she says. “Depressive symptoms are a known reported side effect for small numbers of women who initiate the birth control pill. However, we cannot conclude that hormonal contraception causes depression.”

Plus, Dutton—and the Danish researchers, in the paper—note that the actual change is not huge, despite the arresting percentages mentioned above. The study found that, per 100 person-years (a measurement that factors in the number of study participants and their time contribution to the study), roughly 1.7 non-birth control users began taking anti-depressants in a given year. Among women using hormonal birth control, roughly 2.2 per 100 person-years began taking the drugs. That’s a difference worth noting, but one small enough to suggest that the majority of women taking oral contraceptives are unlikely to experience depression as a side effect.

You probably don’t need to change your habits.

“The contraceptive and non-contraceptive benefits of hormonal contraception are so well-documented, and the absolute risk is so small, that I would not recommend any change in method choice based on this study,” Dutton says.

With that said, however, anyone experiencing negative side effects from her regimen has options, Dutton notes. “For the few women who do notice a negative impact on their mood, they can work together with their providers to customize selection of an optimal alternate method,” she says.

Dutton still feels confident in the Pill.

While Dutton says the link between depression and birth control is worthy of further study, she says she does not have reservations about continuing to prescribe it to patients—but, she says, “I encourage women and adolescents to ask questions and partner with their medical providers to determine their best contraceptive choice.”