Don’t believe the hype: Study linking birth control to depression not what it seems

A story shared widely on social media did not say what click bait headlines led many to believe

by Sydney Sweeney, Staff Columnist

Social media broke out into hysterics last week over news that a study found hormonal birth control increases a woman’s risk of developing depression. Facebook statuses, shares and likes revolved around a Time magazine article published on Oct. 4. The article’s assertions were based on evidence from an investigative paper printed late September in JAMA Psychiatry.

The Time article, along with a handful of others with headlines such as “Your Birth Control Might Raise Your Depression Risk,” and “Is Your Hormonal Birth Control Making You Depressed?” were sensational and shifty. The public’s immediate reaction to the news of a potential correlation between hormonal contraceptives and depression was overblown. Many people just wanted to pick a bone with something — big pharma, the government or the devil’s grip on modern society.

Reporters ignored the study’s nuances for the sake of mass appeal and easy digestion and consumers gobbled it up. The study’s finding of an 80 percent increase in the risk of developing Depression was particularly skewed. While the percentage might seem worrying, it represents relative risk, which compares risk in two different groups of people. An 80 percent relative risk means that for every 10 women who become depressed while not using hormonal contraception, 18 women using contraception develop depression. The findings did not indicate that 80 percent of women on hormonal contraception would develop the condition.

A proper way to assess the likelihood of a woman on hormonal birth control developing depression is to consider the absolute risks and the overall chances of someone developing a condition such as depression. Less than 1 percent of women who began taking hormonal contraceptives developed depression who otherwise might not have. The JAMA article concluded that depression was a potential adverse effect of hormonal contraception. But the widely publicized 80 percent relative risk ratio was perceived as evidence that hormonal birth control is a cause of depression in women using hormonal contraception.

Social media users’ catastrophizing behavior was obnoxious given the social significance of hormonal birth control. Societal norms have come a long way since Eisenstadt v. Baird and even farther since Griswold v. Connecticut, cases that bulldozed contraceptive laws governing both married and unmarried women. Since then, the political disfavor of birth control has dwindled and women have been liberated. The most popular and nonpermanent form of birth control is the pill. The tiny tablets are packed with hormones that protect women from ovarian and uterine cancers, anemia, uncomfortable menstrual cycles and acne in addition to pregnancy. The pill, along with other forms of hormonal contraception, has become more accessible for women whether or not they can see a doctor.

Instead of blowing up Facebook feeds people should understand the number of women who have developed depression in correlation with birth control represent a mere half-percent of the millions of hormonal birth control users. Results should not be completely disregarded — science should continue working toward a complete understanding of the association between hormonal contraception and mood disturbances — but it is irrational to demoralize one of the world’s most liberating drugs because of a study that suggests an undesirable side effect might be possible. Hormonal birth control is safe, effective and available. For now, for most women, that is good enough.