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Why We Need to Talk About Mental Health and Menstruation

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People often make assumptions about the effects of menstruation on mental health that can ultimately strengthen stigma. When a woman gets angry, she must be “on the rag.” She’s sometimes accused of “PMS-ing.” She’s told to “take a Midol” or “eat some chocolate,” then maybe she’ll feel better. During his campaign, the president of the United States actually suggested that Megyn Kelly’s comments on his own history of misogyny were attributed to the “blood coming out of her wherever.”

I think every woman, at some point in their lives, has endured these ridiculous comments. The fact that women still face stigma over their menstrual cycles in correlation to their mental health in 2017 is unbelievable. Considering that women make up half the global population, you’d think people would be more considerate.

Instead, the menstrual cycle is a joke. Schoolboys might snigger when their female classmate takes her purse with her to the bathroom. Women have to whisper when they ask for a pad for fear of being laughed at. Girls shuffle awkwardly to the counter when purchasing tampons, keeping their heads down while shoving the box into the bag.

When it comes to stigma, I think women with mental illness are hit with a double whammy, even though both men and women might experience stigma for their mental illness. If people miss work or school because they need a mental health day, they’re accused of using their mental illness as an “excuse” to skip work. But women with mental illness can also be shamed for a natural, biological occurrence we can’t control. The side effects of our mental illness are often shrugged off as PMS. If women miss work or school because they can’t physically move because of period cramps, they’re “using their period as an excuse.” A chocolate bar or over-the-counter pain medication can solve all our problems.

Our menstrual cycles often become a scapegoat for our mental illnesses. Our mental illnesses are erased.

Let’s talk about another aspect of menstruation and mental health: self-care. Health experts tend to encourage women to exercise, eat healthy, drink enough water and get plenty of sleep to lessen the effects of the menstrual cycle symptoms. That’s easier said than done, especially for women struggling with mental illness.

People with mental illness aren’t always shining examples of self-care. Practicing basic self-care, even on the good days, can be difficult. But for women, like me, who experience debilitating menstrual cramps that sometimes keep us in bed for an entire day, self-care becomes almost impossible.

Yet I don’t see much practical advice on what to do in that situation. Why is that?

The answer is simple: our menstrual cycles are taboo. Many women don’t feel comfortable talking about our mental health or our menstrual cycles because of the stigma associated with both of them. The hormones released during the menstrual cycle influence our mental health all month, not just during our periods. It’s easy to see how this can worsen the emotional and physical effects of mental illness – yet there seems to be little we can do about it.

So what’s a woman to do? Simply accept the double-edged sword? Struggle in silence?

Not anymore. I, for one, will not sit idly by and accept this stigma as “normal.” I want to start a conversation about mental health and menstruation. We need to do more for women whose menstrual cycles exacerbate their mental illness and vice versa. We need to teach our children that it’s OK to talk about both menstruation and mental health.

Our menstrual cycles are not a joke or an excuse. Menstruation is a perfectly natural, biological event that most female mammals experience. There’s no shame in talking about it or experiencing it, and it’s high time we stopped telling women otherwise.

And if this article makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps you’re part of the problem.

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Thinkstock photo via ARTQU

Originally published: October 20, 2017
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