Around a third of women have recently experienced severe reproductive health symptoms – but a new study shows that embarrassment is still stopping them from seeking the help they need.
If you’ve ever been wracked with anxiety about a late period, soldiered through a day at work with debilitating menstrual cramps, or been diagnosed with a condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis, you’ll know how reproductive health issues can dominate women’s lives.
Now, a new study has identified which reproductive issues women are most worried about – and highlights how embarrassment and shame are still preventing some women from accessing the healthcare they need.
Public Health England (PHE) polled more than 7,000 women aged 16 and over for the first survey of its kind, asking them about their experiences of – and concerns about – reproductive health.
Around a third of the women (31%) had experienced severe reproductive health symptoms in the last year, from heavy menstrual bleeding to infertility, menopause and incontinence.
Troublingly, however, fewer than half (46%) of the women surveyed had sought professional medical help for their symptoms.
In a sign that women’s reproductive health is still stigmatised, particularly in the workplace, many women in focus groups consulted for the report said that their reproductive symptoms often affected their ability to go about their day normally. Rather than talk about this openly, though, they said that they generally tried to conceal their symptoms from colleagues at work.
Dr Sue Mann, public health consultant in reproductive health from PHE, said that the research highlights how widespread feelings of embarrassment can hinder women in accessing the help and support they need.
“Women’s reproductive health concerns can fundamentally influence physical and mental wellbeing throughout their whole life course,” she said.
“Our research has highlighted that while individual reproductive health issues and concerns change throughout a woman’s life, the feelings of stigmatisation and embarrassment were almost universal.”
Women were most concerned about avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, the study found, while having an enjoyable sex life and managing painful and/or embarrassing symptoms – such as heavy periods – came second and third respectively.
Notably, anxieties about going for reproductive health screenings, such as smear tests, came in fourth place. Earlier this year, the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust warned that many young women are avoiding getting smear tests because of embarrassment about their bodies.
Experiencing “other” reproductive health symptoms was fifth on the list of concerns. Difficulty getting pregnant and catching a sexually transmitted disease were sixth and seventh.
Dr Mann called for “an open and supportive approach” to reproductive health “in the workplace and in the health system”.
“We encourage women to seek support from their workplace, and for workplace management to be aware of how reproductive health symptoms can affect women’s daily life,” she said.
Of course, embarrassment isn’t the only thing that gets in the way of women’s reproductive health being treated correctly. Previous research has shown that even when women do seek medical help, their health concerns tend to be taken less seriously than men’s, and that serious conditions such as endometriosis are often missed because of dismissiveness about period pain.
But Dr Mann is right to note that the more we talk about these issues, the less stigma will exist around women’s bodies and health – and hopefully, that will lead to more women accessing the care they need.
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