Menopause, a reality for most women around the age of 51, on average, can increase their risk of depression and anxiety. The mental health impacts rank in the top 5 challenges that women encounter along with the more well-known physical symptoms such as weight gain and hot flushes.
Menopause can also start early, any time from the age of 30, or only in the mid-50s or even later.
About 4 in 10 women have mood changes during perimenopause when the reproductive years end and the body naturally transitions to menopause, causing women to experience irritability, low energy, trouble concentrating and being tearful and moody.
However, according to a recent study, only 59% of South Africans consider themselves knowledgeable about menopause, despite it being something they or their partners can expect to experience in their lifetime. Considering that, in the same study, only 37% of South Africans feel comfortable talking about their mental health to friends and family, the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) urges women to seek help not only for their physical symptoms of menopause but for their mental well-being as well.
Dr Joanna Taylor, specialist psychiatrist and member of SASOP, says the most widely spoken about symptoms are the physical, such as hot flushes, night sweats, low libido and weight gain. The mental health symptoms of menopause are rarely discussed, yet they are as common as the physical symptoms and are among the top five complaints raised by menopausal women.
“The risk of depression and anxiety increases during menopause due to hormonal changes, leading to feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in life, being tearful, and increased worry, which can impact one’s day-to-day life, concentration, sleep patterns, and ability to take care of oneself.
“Women with a history of depression and anxiety are more prone to depressive symptoms during menopause and whilst not all menopausal women will develop depression, if you feel persistently irritable, sad, anxious and suffer from insomnia and ‘brain fog’ for longer than two weeks, it’s important to talk to your doctor,” Dr Taylor said.
Dr Taylor advised that many women can treat their symptoms with lifestyle changes such as exercise, sleep and diet, but others might need medical assistance.
“It’s important to recognise that menopause is universal for all women and should never feel disabling. The symptoms of menopause will eventually ease, however most women find them difficult to manage and require treatments to offer relief.
“Some might go through menopause with little disruption whilst others experience the prolonged agony of dwindling libido, hair loss, and headaches. But there is no need to suffer in silence. There are treatment options that can support this new phase of life.”
Dr Taylor said that one’s age, genetics and type of menopause play a significant role in determining the best course of treatment. Not all women’s symptoms can be treated the same way and “what worked for your mother or best friend, might not necessarily be the best option for you”.
“Hormone therapy is a treatment option that has been received with scepticism for many years, but the most recent research has shown that it is safe and effective for relieving moderate to severe mental and physical menopause symptoms,” she said.
For women to support their mental well-being during menopause Dr Taylor recommends:
- Exercise: Daily movement of at least 30 minutes will release endorphins which reduce stress and promote positive emotions.
- Diet: A Mediterranean-style diet can assist in decreasing inflammation, hot flushes and night sweats. Avoid foods high in sugar and fat, and rather increase the intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
- Sleep: Make sure to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep to better deal with challenges, improve decision-making and overall mood.
- Socialise: Isolation increases the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Spend time with friends and family, and talk to other menopausal women to share struggles and solutions.
To read more about menopause visit the Menopause resource website, speak to your GP or visit your local clinic.
If you are experiencing any depression or anxiety symptoms, seek help by contacting the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 0800 12 13 14, or send an SMS to 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.