There’s been a lot of chatter around the menopause this week – on the BBC, in the papers. Chirpy ladies conversing about their hot flushes and brain fog – which to even get this previously unmentionable issue right out there, splat in the face of the nation, is really quite something.
Advice abounds – there are many physical symptoms discussed and despatched accordingly. Occasionally there is a reference to ‘low mood’. Debates range HRT versus herbal remedies, patches versus supplements – everyone suddenly knows everything.
Walking past a bus shelter recently I saw an ad for said supplements, fronted by a relaxed, smiling older woman with the caption: Me. No Pause. I remember trying desperately to be that smiling woman – I was spending over £100 a month on supplements that were supposed to alleviate all the unpleasantness – to little avail. I gave up.
Eventually it occurred to me that the menopause was more than just a series of unpleasant and yes embarrassing symptoms. For me the sum of the physical was causing the worst symptom of all – the so-called ‘low mood.’
Now don’t get me wrong. There are women who do indeed sail through the changing years and beyond without too much disruption or upset – I’m pleased that that is the case. Some find the HRT and/or the supplements most helpful. Some women bear it all with courage and tenacity. But that is not everyone.
One TV presenter this week cheerily said that in Japan the menopause was called a ‘second spring’. Yet for many of us it can be an interminable winter. Because while the effects and impacts of the more obvious, common and often distressing symptoms of menopause are eventually being addressed by employers – thanks to the tireless work of organisations like Unite – the effects of the menopause on mental health lie still hidden in the shadows.
There are many factors involved. Middle age is a difficult, cruel time for everyone, whatever their gender. The fourteenth century poet Dante Alighieri, sums it up in the opening lines of his Inferno – “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself astray in a dark wood, where the straight road had been lost.”
It’s easy for anyone to get lost in the dark woods. Mental health issues don’t just happen overnight. Issues at work, stress, anxiety, bullying all take their toll. Physical illness, bereavement, heartbreak, relationship issues, changes to your physical appearance, strength and vigour, dashed hopes, broken dreams and of course depression can deepen an ever-growing hollowness within us.
If you recognise yourself here you will understand the ‘cumulative effect.’ Deep wounds never truly heal and certain circumstances could well take you back to a place you’d rather not be again. The term ‘low mood’ goes nowhere near the mark.
This is Mental Health Awareness Week – there have been some brave confessions of how the menopause affected that woman’s mental health – but not nearly enough. I’m not entirely surprised.
Women from my generation often feel they have to apologise for themselves. It’s easy for society to see older women in a negative way – phrases like ‘silly cow’ or even ‘stupid old bag’ are still heard. It’s easy to say ‘oh silly me I forgot. Must been my brain fog – or must be my time of life, or I’m just so stupid – sorry.’ Sorry, sorry, sorry – for what exactly? It has to stop.
Of course how ‘lost in the woods’ you might feel can have many underlying factors. The cruelty of middle age can place a woman caring for her kids, or funding her young adult children, while caring for her elderly parents, working longer hours and harder at work to cope, while all chances of ambition and promotion at work are snatched away as she feels she has become more and more invisible, more and more taken for granted, an exhausted shell.
Or for the childless woman there is often a feeling of deep loss and alienation from the ‘norm’, from the rest of society, facing an old age alone. Some women can’t cope with the changes to their bodies – the thinning greying hair, the changes in their body’s shape, their attractiveness. Whatever the cause, the effect can be difficult to manage and for some, very serious indeed.
One woman told me that although she had no idea at the time, she now believes her divorce came about as a direct result of how she felt during the menopause. Another found the endlessly sleepless nights from her fever-like hot flushes made her unable to do her job properly causing her anxiety and stress. The fear she might lose her livelihood and home then led to a deep depression.
But help is out there – both through the NHS and increasingly in your workplace thanks to organisations including Unite.
Unite has recently been working on a ‘period dignity’ campaign – with a good deal of success – whereby employers are encouraged to provide staff with free sanitary products. And now the spotlight is turning to work-related issues around the menopause.
Wales regional officer Joanne Galazka has some very good news to report. She says, “Energy firm SSE has not only agreed to provide free sanitary products for all their staff in Wales and sign up to Unite’s period dignity campaign, but they are also interested in introducing a menopause policy alongside it.
“It is a massive win for our members after the company dismissed a woman and had to reinstate her after our involvement due to the menopause. The reps have campaigned so hard for it and are so chuffed.”
Well done to Joanne and her team and here’s to many more Unite agreements with employers to help members with menopause-related work issues.
Unite national equalities officer Siobhan Endean agrees.
“Unite aims to raise awareness and help women members experiencing the menopause at work through our network of safety reps and shop stewards by preventing discrimination and making changes to our working environments which can benefit everyone,” she says.
“We work with employers to address the issue of menopause through positive policies as well as general guidance for our reps on how to tackle this issue in our women and well-being guide.
“Women often find the menopause difficult to talk about, though, like puberty or pregnancy, it is a natural occurrence. The menopause can also be seen as a positive step into the next phase of women’s lives. Unite wants to help members take a positive and informed attitude to the menopause in the workplace.
“Unite aims to raise awareness and help women members experiencing the menopause at work through our network of safety reps and shop stewards by preventing discrimination and making changes to our working environments which can benefit everyone. Women can play an important role in raising workplace standards for all.”
In Mental Health Awareness Week Unite wants you to know you are not alone and we are here to help all of our members.
To find out more about the menopause see:
To get support and advice on any mental health issue affecting your job contact your rep, safety rep or regional office for help.
For support and advice on mental health see:
https://www.nhs.uk/ and search for IAPT services