Thursday, 24 November 2016

When the drugs work

There’s an epidemic of women taking drugs. They're not illegal and it's not addiction. It's the routine medicalisation of women, as we are prescribed courses of pills that last for decades.

There are two types of drugs that are routinely prescribed to women - the contraceptive pill and antidepressants. And it wouldn’t surprise me if, in a generation or two, research shows that the second is often a direct result of the first.

By Diana Mehrez via Flickr Creative Commons

Taking antidepressants
Huge numbers of women suffer from mental health problems - depression is about twice as common in women than men. 

Doctors are quick to prescribe antidepressants to patients. It’s far easier to get pills than therapy, unless you have plenty of money to pay for it yourself. And I’m not against antidepressants, I’m sure they can have a hugely positive impact, for people that want and need them,.

Counselling and other therapies are available on the NHS, but the wait until you even get a call to find out what you need can be long, and the process of referral can be confusing. Patients with mental health problems literally can’t cope with this kind of thing, which is one of the reasons the pills go down so well. And drugs are a lot cheaper than counseling and talking therapies.

I’ve heard stories about women who go to their doctor to try and get some counselling to deal with a problem in their lives coming out with pills. And women who want to reduce and eventually stop taking antidepressants being steered away from doing so.

Pills are overwhelmingly seen as the cure for mental health problems. And whilst they may be the answer in many cases, they aren't right for every situation. We are medicalising the mentally ill, and as far more women come forward with mental health problems than men, it is we that are popping most of the Prozac (other drugs available).

The contraceptive pill
And so onto the other drug that so many women are taking: the pill. Contraception is a brilliant invention. The pill revolutionised women’s lives, meaning we do not have to be victims of our biological destiny. We can choose if and when we have children. Many of the freedoms we enjoy today can be traced back to the contraceptive pill.

The pill was first introduced in the UK in 1961 (for married women). It’s now 2016 and 3.5 million UK women are on some form of hormonal contraception. They’ve tweaked the combinations of chemicals a bit. And you can have an implant in your arm so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting to take it. But the principal is the same: give the woman hormones to stop her ovulating so she can’t get pregnant. Every couple of years there's a story about a male contraceptive pill that's on its way, but so far this hasn't materialised.

My story
I was on the pill from age 19 to 34. Non stop. Same pill. No break. Fifteen years. Every six months I had a check up and picked up my new prescription. At no point did anyone suggest that there might be a problem with taking something that suspended my natural biology for 15 years.

When I did finally stop taking it (to have a baby), my reproductive functions had switched themselves off. My body had no idea what it was supposed to do - it had got so used to not doing it.

It took a year. Then, just days before I was about to start popping yet more pills - fertility enhancing drugs in this case - my body figured out what it was supposed to be doing, and nine months later, out my baby daughter bounced. The irony of this stuff is that we spend years trying not to get pregnant, as we build a career, earn some money and find a nice bloke; and then years trying equally hard to get up the duff.

From where I’m sitting now, it seems little crazy that the medical professionals at no point thought, or mentioned, that taking a pill continuously for all that time when you’re not sick, maybe isn’t a great idea.

From pill to pill

So huge numbers of women are taking hormonal contraceptives. And huge numbers of us are taking antidepressants. The impact of hormonal contraceptives on mental health has been hugely under-reported, and I suspect under-researched. But there may well be a link - with the pill making women depressed, so one long-term drug leads to another.

But even if they are not, it worries me that by far the majority of women of child-bearing age are taking drugs that have a major impact on their body chemistry, and they’re not even ill.

I'm not taking a pop at the pill or at antidepressants. Really. Sometimes taking the pills is the right thing to do. But it worries me that there seems to be a reluctance to explore other options. Perhaps both doctors and patients should think twice before prescribing pills for decades. And if there is a link between the pill and antidepressants, we really need to know about it. And to do something about it.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Sex on TV

I never intended to be the kind of parent who uses TV as a babysitting service. But then I had a child.

My daughter watches relatively little TV (I think). I save it for the evenings, when she’s tired and grumpy, and I need to distract her while I cook.

One reason I haven’t been too unhappy about my parenting compromise is the high quality of some toddler TV. The artwork is beautiful (Abney and Teal), the characters are well-drawn (Charlie and Lola) and they range from educational (Andy's Prehistoric Adventures) to just plain crazy (Sarah and Duck).

Until someone pointed it out to me, I hadn’t noticed a shocking, striking fact about the gender of the characters that have become a part of our daily lives - nearly all of them are male. Ra Ra. Bing, Boj. Peter Rabbit. All boys.

Photo by Sagesolar via Flickr Creative Commons

So I did a little bit of research. I counted the number of male characters in the titles of TV programmes for toddlers. And then I counted the number of female title characters. The schedules for toddlers' TV is the same every day, so whichever day I picked was entirely representative of that particular season.

Male v female characters on toddler TV

In a single day of CBeebies TV programmes:
  • 14 programmes have just male characters in the title 
  • 2 programmes have just female characters in the title 
  • 2 programmes have both male and female title characters 
I had a look at another TV channel, Tiny Pop. There were:
  • 8 programmes with male title characters 
  • 5 programmes with female title characters 
The proportion is still far from equal, but it is a lot better. 

BBC could do better

I haven’t introduced my daughter to channels other than CBeebies (the dedicated BBC channel for this age group) because I don’t want to expose her (or me) to adverts, but also because I judged, based on nothing but prejudice (I hadn’t actually seen any of the programmes) that the quality of programmes on the BBC was better. I mean, it’s the BBC. It’s there to inform, educate and entertain. Information and education come before entertainment. Surely that’s not going to rot my child’s brain?

And the quality of programming is high, so no, it won’t rot her brain. But what it will do is from the tiniest age, gently communicate a sense of patriarchy - that males, men, boys come ahead of females. We rarely have more than a supporting role on screen. 

Believing what you see

“Mummy, are you a mermaid?” As my daughter once asked me, very seriously, out of the blue. It was a strange question, but it illustrates that so much of what she understands of the world comes from fiction - from stories and games and books and TV. She hears about mermaids and she hears about hedgehogs - how does she know which is true and which is fantasy?

The characters children see on TV make up a huge part of how their reality is constructed. By ensuring that male characters dominate tots' TV we are sending a clear message about the primacy of masculinity to our youngest, most impressionable and vulnerable audience. We are telling them that girls and women are life's cheerleaders, sitting on the sidelines watching the boys and men do great things.

If we want an equal society by the next generation, this is not going to help. I dearly hope CBeebies and other children's TV providers get their act together soon and start to show girls at the centre of their programming, not just the sidelines.