In celebration of Menstrual Health Week: Why is it important to talk about periods
Francesca Coia, Digital Planning Account Director
If you know me personally, the chances are that we have had a discussion about periods. My period, your period, anyone’s period… I’m here for the conversation.
Periods and the workplace are a topic of contention at the moment. As Spain move to introduce period leave; many people are wondering what relevance the menstrual cycle has in your ability to do your job. The worry for many is that it’s a step backwards in the campaign for equality – a move towards viewing woman as the ‘weaker’ sex.
Recently I had an important work meeting to attend in London and found myself awake in my hotel room until 5am the night before due to intense period cramps. My period had come early, likely brought on by stress, and I did not have access to my prescription painkillers to relieve the symptoms. This does not make me weak or lesser able to do my job, but it is important to recognise that I may have different healthcare needs than someone who does not menstruate.
I have had painful periods ever since the age of 12, and typically missed around one day of school per month due to excruciating cramps, complimented by over-heating, waves of nausea (at my worst, vomiting) and dizziness. I’m not alone in this experience. 5% – 10% of menstruating people experience pain severe enough that it causes disruption to their life. Add into the mix the cost of period products and you find yourself with a very tangible inequality that begins at an early age. According to Free Periods, it is estimated that over 137,000 children across the UK have missed school days due to period poverty.
Unfortunately for myself and many other menstruating people around the world, painful cramps are a widely accepted symptom of menstruation and therefore little attention is often given to those who suffer. You’ll be recommended to pop a couple of paracetamols, jump in the bath or grab a hot water bottle because chances are you’re not going to be given any medical attention.
If over-the-counter painkillers aren’t quite cutting it, and you choose to revisit your doctor, typically the second solution is for your doctor to recommend a hormonal contraceptive. There are no age restrictions for the contraceptive pill, which means a young person can be put on life-altering medication as young as 10 or 11 as a means of managing their symptoms of menstruation.
Whilst the combined pill was a revolutionary invention, allowing women to defer pregnancy, enter the work force and make life choices their mothers could not, there is also a business case for recommending the contraceptive pill so readily. If you’re at all intrigued, I’d recommend reading ‘Sweeting the Pill – or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control’ by Holly Grigg-Spall to find out more about why the pill has become such an ingrained part of society globally.
The fact of the matter is women and trans men are not being treated on a case by case basis when it comes to their menstrual health, and all too often there is a one-size-fits-all approach to our healthcare. This is concerning as there are serious side-effects to be considered when looking to the pill both as a contraceptive and as a means of controlling your menstrual cycle.
When I was 18, I was prescribed the combined pill, Microgynon. Knowing full-well this was one of the most commonly taken medications, I took it without a care for any of the side effects, which, amongst others include:
– Mood changes
– Rise in blood pressure
– Change in sex drive
– Skin reactions
– Blood clots
– Increased risk of breast cancer
– Increased risk of cervical cancer
– Severe allergic reaction
Within two months of being prescribed Microgynon I found myself in A&E having nearly fainted during a busy bar shift, suffering from severe breathlessness. As it transpired, I had suffered a pulmonary embolism – blood clots had developed in my lungs to the point that I only had ¼ lung capacity, putting enormous pressure on my heart – I was at risk of having a stroke and the doctor sternly told me that I was lucky to be alive when I asked if I could leave the hospital to go on a much-anticipated trip to London the next day. I spent a week in the intensive care unit for monitoring after being injected with “clot-busting” medicine, followed by a 6-month prescription of Warfarin – a blood thinner.
The chances of getting a blood clot from Microgynon are around 6 in 10,000. However, considering the number of people on Microgynon in the UK (about 3 million), that’s around 1,800 people who are likely to get a blood clot and potentially die from taking a daily medication designed to prevent pregnancy and control periods. By increasing the risk of blood clots, stroke and heart attack, hormonal contraception leads to the death of 300-400 women every year in the US. To give some perspective, around 45 people die a year from Meningitis in the US.
The argument for taking the pill despite these scary side-effects is thus; the benefits from prevented pregnancies far outweigh the risks of taking the pill. It’s a sound argument, but regardless of whether the contraceptive pill has any likelihood of killing you, there are also the increasing rates of depression and suicide being anecdotally linked to the pill.
I’m writing this piece in honour of Menstrual Health week and as Republic of Media brings their Menopause and Menstruation policies officially in to place. By creating such policies, Republic of Media allow their staff to make adjustments to their work environment and schedules to fit around their various symptoms. As an example, on days when my period is bad, I can choose to work from home and inform my colleagues that I need to take breaks away from my computer to deal with pain. For me, that means taking my prescription medication, running a bath and generally taking my mind off work until the pain dissipates (many people report that psychological stress worsens their menstrual pain).
The ability to take time away from work to alleviate pain or discomfort caused by menstruation is not common. For those who do not get paid sick leave, the side effects of the menopause or menstruation could cause them to lose out on income. For a minimum wage worker in full-time employment that could be up to £771 per year in lost income if they were to take one day off a month to cope with their menstrual cramps.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) launched a call for evidence in March 2021 to inform the first-ever government-led Women’s Health Strategy for England, you can find the results here. It is evident that more needs to be done, not just about our menstrual health but about fertility, pregnancy, the menopause and mental health.
We need to continue to have conversations about periods and campaign for change so that menstruation is no longer a barrier to education, effective healthcare, work or equal pay. It is a global issue that can easily be resolved with increased attention, research and fundraising.
If you want to find out more or help in anyway, there are a wide-array of charities that help increase awareness of and help end period poverty: