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Beyond the Prescription Pad: Awareness of Contraceptive Pills

Challenges of Pill Consumption

In eighth grade, junior Alana Reber began taking birth control pills to assist her unregulated period. After two years of on-and-off consumption, Reber decided to stop taking the pill due to her profoundly negative experience.

In 2020, Reber was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, an autoimmune disorder characterized by the overproduction of thyroid hormone. Consumption of artificial progesterone and estrogen was worsening her immune system, and the countless side effects that Reber had suffered during her two years of ingesting birth control had significantly threatened her health.

Illustration by Lauren Olsen

 

“I do not understand how people [taking oral contraceptives] ignore the side effects. Everyone tries to ignore how sick they feel. [Birth control] should be helping women, but instead, it is making women’s bodies and immune systems feel worse,” Reber said. “I would never recommend it to anyone.”

For Reber, birth control was severely damaging to both her physical and mental well-being. She explained that the pill-induced intense feelings of depression and the associated weight-gain side effects negatively impacted her body image.

“All I wanted was to regulate my period, but I ended up feeling depressed. I started to wonder, ‘Is it me?’ It hit my body hard, and I felt disgusting – I felt artificial,” Reber said.  “I gained a ton of weight, it all went to my stomach and I felt bad about myself, I felt fat. It made me feel horrible so I was like; why is this happening? This shouldn’t be happening.’”

Reber expresses her frustration for not being informed of the side effects she may experience, particularly how hormonal birth control could adversely impact hyperthyroidism.

“I feel like I was not educated enough before starting the pill, especially with my autoimmune disease. The doctors just said that it would help regulate my period, but they did not tell me birth control would change how my body feels and what it looks like,” Reber said. “They just said, ‘Shove this down your throat and see if anything changes.’But, no, nothing helped.”

Junior Brooke Penfield began taking oral contraceptives in August of this year with a desire to alleviate her intense period cramps and facilitate acne relief. Penfield found her first few months on the pill to be challenging.

“Physically, it took two months for my body to adjust. During those two months, I was exhausted, and if I was an hour or two late to take my pill, I would still bleed the whole next day,” Penfield said. “Mentally, I didn’t want to do what I [normally] wanted to do. I did not go for runs anymore; I wasn’t doing the things that I usually liked to do.”

 

The Affirmative Stance

At 13 years old, Junior Audrey Jaeger determined that oral contraception was her best choice to manage her painful and unregulated periods. Unlike Reber and Penfield, Jaeger continues to stand by the choice she made four years ago, maintaining a positive perspective on the pill. 

 “I used to have to stay home from school because of [my period]. I would get nauseous and feel like I was going to pass out,” Jaeger said. “[When I started birth control for it], I was young. I feel like when I went on it, I thought [birth control] was just for preventing pregnancy, but now I love it, and I’m happy that I went on it. It’s helped me so much.”

Similar to Jaeger, Penfield, despite her challenging start with oral contraceptives, holds a generally positive view, acknowledging that they have proved to be beneficial for her. 

“Birth control helped my acne clear up. Now, I don’t get big breakouts before my period. As for my cramps, the pill has helped them so much. I’m still getting cramps, but the ones I would get before got to the extent where I would get sick from them,” Penfield said. “It was hard for my body to adjust at first, but then I felt the positive effects start to work. It just takes time.”

Infographic by Alana Leifer

 

Understanding Oral Contraceptives 

Dr. Rita Melkonian, Doctor of Medicine and a fellow of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is a local Gynecology and Urogynecology specialist in Marin County.  She works with her patients to find the best birth control pill for their health.

“We like to change the pill depending on how our patients feel. Personally, my patients don’t have problems because I start them with the very good new pills, Loestrin and Nextstellis. However, we start [our patients] on different pills depending on their side effects. Because there are so many different kinds, even generic [ones],” Melkonian said.

It is essential to understand the properties of birth control. According to Planned Parenthood, there are two kinds of birth control: combination pills of the hormones progesterone and estrogen, and progesterone-only pills. Users can experience adverse side effects because they react to these hormones, as seen with Reber’s hormonal autoimmune disorder. According to The Independent Source for Health Policy, Research and News: Women’s Health Policy, all women are susceptible to side effects. 31 percent of contraceptive users complained of side effects, and 52 percent concurred that side effects were worse than what they had expected. 

Melkonian agrees that birth control can cause severe side effects, but a variety of different brands exist that can precisely fit the health needs of an individual. Sometimes, a three-month test trial is needed to find the right one.

“We like birth control pills that are low in estrogen dose, and when [patients] don’t have side effects like weight gain and emotional problems. We want it to be as natural as possible and also affordable,” Melkonian said.

Birth control pills at Redwood 

Roughly three years after the Redwood Wellness Center opened, staff undertook the vital project of expanding student access to reproductive services. As evidenced by a 2015 Frequently Asked Questions about the Wellness Sexual Health Clinic that the Marin Community Clinic (MCC) runs on campus, over half of the students surveyed (557) responded that they would use reproductive health services through the Wellness Center. 82 percent of staff agreed it should be provided, and 85 percent of parents strongly agreed. 

Jessica Colvin is the Wellness Director and one of the pioneers of the free, anonymous reproductive health accessibility program. She oversees the distribution of the services for Tamalpais Unified High School District (TUHSD) schools.

 “When I came to this district, [comprehensive reproductive health services on campus] did not exist. When we surveyed students and asked what they wanted to see in the Wellness Center, they said it was hard to get birth control, pregnancy testing, and Sexually Transmitted Infection testing, and it was hard to get after school. They wanted the services on campus. We worked to create this partnership with the MCC,” Colvin said.

The California Minor Consent and Confidentiality Laws allow youth aged 12-17 to consent to their medical care to prevent and treat reproductive health problems. Additionally, California Education Code 46010 allows school authorities to excuse students from school to obtain confidential medical services without the consent of their guardians. 

“If students want to get birth control off campus, they can go through their primary care physician, and they can go through Planned Parenthood, or they can go through Teen Tuesday at Huckleberry. Those are all options. Moreover, [they can] come on a day that MCC is on campus, every third Friday, about once a month, or at their out-of-campus clinic” Colvin said. 

Birth control is only provided through the MCC if it is to prevent pregnancy. The sole point of implementing this program, through the lens of Colvin, is to make accessing their right to reproductive health easier under California law. Consent forms regarding requests for birth control are not accessible to staff outside of the Wellness Center and cannot be shared with a college. Additionally, the community-based organization providers that meet with students, such as the MCC, have separate files inaccessible to school staff and protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

 

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About the Contributors
Alana Leifer, Copy Editor
Alana Leifer is a junior and a copy editor for the Redwood Bark. She enjoys running, spending time with her friends, and traveling.
Emily Hitchcock, Web Designer
Emily Hitchcock is a junior and a first-year member of the Redwood Bark as the web designer. She enjoys running, spending time with her friends and listening to music.