Moody, irritated, short-tempered – these are some of the words my family and friends used to describe me as a teenager. Indeed, that’s how I felt most of the time, especially during ‘that time of the month.’
Like many women – around 90% of them according to the U.S. Department of Health – I’ve experienced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) such as cramps, irritability, and anxiety. I can still remember the feeling of relief to read in my teen magazines (this was before the smartphone era) that the PMS symptoms significantly affecting my life were not as ‘abnormal’ as I thought, and that I wasn’t the only one experiencing them.
However, my experience with those symptoms turned out not to be so ‘normal’ after all. I’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety disorders since I was a child and getting my period only made things worse.
It was only when I reached age 24 – 16 years after the onset of my anxiety disorders and 12 years after my first period – that I sought out professional help to deal with my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and I had symptoms of borderline personality disorder and PME (premenstrual exacerbation of underlying disorders), too. I began taking medication and going to therapy.
Thankfully, despite all the struggles – including missing classes at school and outings with friends due to severe cramps and debilitating anxiety – I somehow managed my symptoms throughout my teenage years. However, I am far from alone in having struggled with menstrual and mental health during adolescence.
Recent data shows a worrying picture of teenage girls’ mental health. World Health Organization data published in UNFPA’s 2016 The State of World Population report indicates that suicide is the leading cause of death among teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 worldwide.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States in 2015, suicide rates of teenage girls aged 15 to 19 were the highest for that group in 40 years – the rates had doubled from 2007 to 2015. Research has also indicated that at least 20% of teenage girls experience moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms that impact their functioning, and that premenstrual disorders such as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) often onset during adolescence.
Empowering teenage girls with knowledge about menstrual and mental health, including relevant information about PMS, PME, and PMDD could be a significant step towards changing those worrisome statistics.
The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women’s Mental Health provides a handy guide about PMS and PMDD to assist teenage girls in identifying possible symptoms – which can show up around ten days before the beginning of a menstrual cycle – through phrases such as:
“I feel sad and depressed – life is just not as fun.”
“My parents and I get into a lot more fights, and I just want to scream at everyone.”
“Getting my homework done takes so much more energy.”
“Sometimes I can’t fall asleep before my period, other times I sleep all day long.”
The truth is, whether PMS, PME, or PMDD (which is a recognized disorder by both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization), teenage girls’ experiences of their menstrual and mental health should be taken seriously – it’s their well-being, health, and lives at stake.
If I could say something to my teenage self, it would be this:
No, you’re not ‘abnormal’ for experiencing these symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that you have to live the rest of life miserably because of them. One day you’ll find the strength to advocate for yourself, and you’ll find people who will show you that it’s possible to live a better life, even with your mental health conditions. The road will still be hard, and very dark times will come; but girl, you’re a warrior, and you’re going to make it through.
More resources about PMS and PMMD for teenage girls can be found at the Center for Young Women’s Health, and Gia Allemand Foundation/International Association for Premenstrual Disorders which also offers a self-screen for PMDD and PME.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help immediately. In the United States, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For a list of international suicide hotlines, visit www.buddy-project.org/hotlines.