Mental health and the menopause

illustration of older woman wearing headphones

This month we speak to Fran McElhone, journalist and owner of content production company Dotty Creative, about the impact the menopause can have on women’s mental health. 

While I was working as a freelance journalist, I wanted to find out more about the impact the menopause can have on women’s mental health. I was inspired to do so after realising that many women of menopausal age had started to develop anxiety and depression for the first time in their lives, including my own mother, and some friends’ mothers.

Impact on women’s health 

The menopause can impact a woman’s health both physically and psychologically, primarily due to the depletion of the hormone oestrogen in the body. In addition to hot flushes, sweats and tiredness, heavy bleeding and vaginal dryness, some women also experience emotional and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, poor concentration and low self-esteem.

Impact on mental wellbeing 

During my research, I was lucky to meet Helen, who was not only a psychological wellbeing practitioner for the Devon NHS Partnership Trust, but who could speak first-hand about the impact the menopause can have on mental wellbeing.

Here is what the then 57-year-old told me about the toll the change of life can have. By talking to me, Helen hoped that other women experiencing similar symptoms such as low mood, anxiety and “brain fog” will not immediately think they too are “going mad”, but that these issues may be linked to hormonal changes in the body, and crucially, can be treated and will pass.

“I found it very difficult at times,” said Helen. “There were occasions I thought I was losing my mind. I was exhausted all the time and couldn’t order my thoughts and I had pain throughout my body and aches in my joints.

“Things would take me longer to do, like writing up clinical notes. I’d feel more emotional and have trouble remembering simple things like what I needed to buy when I was out shopping. There were times when I’d start a sentence and then forget where I was going with it. It really affected my confidence.

“A lot of my female patients said to me, ‘I think I’m losing my mind, maybe I’m getting dementia, my head is like a fog, I can’t order my thoughts, I’m tired all the time’ – one of the questions I always asked my female patients is where they’re at with the menopause.”

Speak Openly

I feel passionately that women – and men – should be able to speak openly about the menopause, and there should be far more support in the workplace than there currently is.

Helen agreed: “The menopause can affect every part of a woman’s life,” she added. “Women should feel they can approach their managers and ask for adjustments in the workplace if needed, to help them cope.

“Women need to feel they can go and ask for help, that they can access mental health services either through their GPs or by self-referral, and they’ll be listened to, and know that there is treatment available which can help them manage their symptoms, and that they’re not losing their minds.”

In August 2018, world-renowned healthcare expert Maryon Stewart conducted a survey of more than 1,000 women called Change the Conversation on Menopause. Nearly half of the women surveyed had experienced depression, while 65 per cent had experienced poor concentration or anxiety. Furthermore, around half admitted they would find it hard to tell a manager or colleague that they were struggling, concerned that it would make them look less capable than their colleagues, believing their managers would not understand anyway.

This has to change, and I vow right now, that when it’s my turn, I’m not going to keep it quiet!