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According to a new study out of Finland, hormonal birth control may not actually contribute to an increased rate of suicide. Mindful Media/Getty Images
  • A new study challenges the idea that hormonal birth control may lead to an increased risk of suicide.
  • The researchers studied more than half a million women in Finland and found that individuals not taking contraceptives had a 37 percent increased risk of attempting suicide — the findings were even more pronounced among women over the age of 19.
  • Experts agree that the findings offer a hopeful message but stress that the research is still preliminary and that more analysis is required.

Approximately 14 percent of women in the United States between the ages of 15 and 49 use hormonal birth control. Hormonal contraceptives are among the most widely used pharmaceutical products in the nation.

Up until recently, however, research stated that hormonal contraception use doubled the risk of suicide attempts, and tripled the risk of suicide, according to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

But new a new observational study, which was recently presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry, may actually be flipping the previous thinking on its head. This newer research, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, has shown that the rates of attempted suicides in women using hormonal contraception are actually lower than in women who do not use hormonal contraception.

“This study reviews the complex relationship between hormonal contraceptives — including pills, implants, patches, and rings — and suicidal behavior. Prior studies suggested that hormonal contraceptives are associated with a higher risk of suicide attempts, however, this large European study shows that the rates of suicide attempts in women using hormonal contraception are in fact lower than in women who did not use hormonal contraception,” said Dr. Ami Baxi, a psychiatrist at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Helsinki, who used several Finnish databases to compare attempted suicide rates from the years 2017 to 2019 of those who use hormonal contraceptives and those who do not. The study looked at more than 587,000 women (about half of the women between the ages of 15-49 in Finland). About half of the women included in the study reported the use of hormonal contraceptives, such as pills, patches, or rings. According to Lead Researcher Dr. Elana Toffol, the purpose of the research was actually to verify the previous data, so their actual findings came as a surprise.

What the study found is that suicide rates dropped in older age groups, with a great drop in those who use hormonal contraceptives users as opposed to non-users. The suicide rates between hormonal contraceptive users and non-users were similarly high in the group between the ages of 15-19, though suicide rates are higher in younger women in general.

According to the findings, women not using contraceptives had a 37 percent greater odds of attempting suicide in comparison with those using hormonal contraceptives. It shows that women with no psychiatric history and using hormonal contraceptives, specifically those containing ethinylestradiol (a synthetic estrogen), had a significantly reduced risk of attempting suicide than women not using any hormonal contraception.

In general, women have a higher lifetime prevalence of mood or anxiety disorders than men, according to the World Health Organization. Hormonal contraceptives are often associated with mood changes, as well.

“So, despite looking to verify previous data which indicated an increased risk of suicide attempts in women on hormonal contraceptives, this study provides a pleasant surprise for women who use or are considering hormonal contraceptives,” said Baxi.

Which contraception to use is a personal decision that each individual woman should make, with consultation from her doctor. However, for women who were hesitant to take hormonal birth control, this study may present a different, more hopeful perspective. Still, this is one study and more research would have to be performed.

“Although this is great preliminary news for women taking or considering taking hormonal contraceptives, additional clinical considerations need to be taken with one’s physician,” said Baxi. “Further studies will also need to be done to replicate these findings.”

“Of course, this striking finding deserves a careful evaluation and needs to be replicated in different cohorts of women and controlled for the impact of several psychosocial stressors, such as economic upheavals, social insecurity, and uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic,” said Associate Professor of Psychiatry Andrea Fiorillo of the University of Campania, Naples, in a statement. “The clinical implications of the study are obvious and may help to de-stigmatize the use of hormonal contraceptives.”