Why we need to raise student awareness about menstrual disorders

Would you think twice about ringing in sick to work or skipping a lecture or two if you had the flu? Probably not. So why is there so often a stigma surrounding using ‘period problems’ or actual female reproductive disorders as a reason for absence? Women with menstrual problems often hide it because people say things like: “But periods are a normal, natural thing. Pain is normal. All women just have to deal with it”. Periods are normal, but severely painful periods or similar disorders are not, and they affect some women’s lives hugely.

One of the reasons women suffer in silence is because of a general lack of awareness and knowledge. I created and shared a survey to gather responses that helped provide a small snapshot of your average student’s knowledge of these disorders. Out of the 82 people who responded, only 16% considered themselves knowledgeable on menstrual disorders.

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Just under half knew about endometriosis, which is a disease that has been written about in the news recently, but only 24% knew what dysmenorrhea was. Interestingly, 13% of people thought that extreme pain and sickness was normal for menstruation, and 23% thought it is normal for a period to prevent a woman from going about her normal activities.

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Although these might not be the majority’s responses, they still seem a little high, and I was shocked to know that people thought these were signs of a normal period. Another notable finding from the survey is that the respondents who were in an older demographic of 26 and above on average knew more of the menstrual disorders, and also said it was abnormal for periods to affect your normal activities. This perhaps points towards the fact that we need more education on these subjects in colleges and universities to raise awareness.


But what are some of the most common menstrual problems and female reproductive disorders? Read about them below.

Endometriosis

This is a common condition where tissue called endometrium, which behaves like womb lining, grows on other parts of the body such as the stomach, bladder, ovaries and fallopian tubes. The symptoms include very painful and heavy periods, pain during sex, pelvic pain, and fertility problems. Despite being a common disease, it often goes untreated for an average of 7.5 years after a woman first sees a GP about it, as it is often misdiagnosed and only diagnosed via an operation in which a camera is inserted into the pelvis.

Dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia

This is the medical term for what we normally refer to as painful periods. However, it does not just mean the mild tummy ache most women get during a period, but is relieved with some ibuprofen or a hot water bottle. It also refers to severe period pain often accompanied by migraines and vomiting in women with menstrual disorders. Painful periods are often accompanied by menorrhagia, also known as “heavy periods”. One in five women bleeds so heavily during their periods that they have to put their normal lives on hold just to deal with the heavy blood loss.

One survey respondent added a comment to express how she felt about the issue: “I think it’s fine to admit that your period is so bad you can’t work or do normal activities. But whenever I’ve had to use that excuse, I’ve rarely said it’s my period, because you still get the majority of people who think it can’t be that bad, just because it’s natural or because they don’t get extreme pain themselves”.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is more of a reproductive disorder than specifically a menstrual problem, but it has secondary effects on menstruation. PCOS affects how the ovaries work, causing irregular periods, excess amounts of male hormones in the body, and enlarged ovaries that contain fluid-filled follicles. Irregular periods greatly affect a woman’s life as she never knows when she is going to have her period and can be caught off guard. There is also the concern that it can sometimes lead to fertility problems. PCOS also may cause weight gain, hair loss, and excessive hair growth. Similar to most reproductive and menstrual problems, there is no cure for PCOS, it can only be managed.

A PCOS sufferer and survey respondent spoke out about her personal experience with the disease: “It is difficult because people tell you that the pain and messed up cycle is a normal part of being a teenage girl, and that you just have to deal with it. It takes a lot of persuading to get it investigated, but you know your body best, and you know when something isn’t right.”.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

We have all heard of “PMS” which stands for ‘pre-menstrual syndrome’ and is often a normal (albeit annoying) part of the menstrual cycle, causing mild mood changes such as feeling down and irritable, and headaches. PMDD is a far more severe case of this, and is not part of the ‘normal’ cycle, indicating a problem. It’s the difference between a mild headache and a debilitating migraine or feeling a little down, and being severely depressed.


How can you help?

Start talking about it. We need to raise awareness on these lesser discussed issues and lose the stigma surrounding them. If women feel more confident to speak up, then they don’t need to suffer in silence and can seek medical help and support from friends and family sooner.

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