Their symptoms of perimenopause can be mild, moderate or disabling, like they were in Markey’s case, and can include feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, moving or talking more slowly, feeling restless or having trouble sitting still, thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts, andaches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The NIMH notes that if you experience such symptoms (among others) for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, you may be depressed.
But sometimes perimenopausal depression goes undiagnosed because the symptoms may be atypical, Schmidt says. Women might have common symptoms such as fatigue and hopelessness, but they might also become anxious, for instance.
“Perimenopausal depression is often associated with excessive worry and rumination and physical changes and excessive tearfulness. Even commercials can set them off. It is annoying if it’s happening regularly and can also be marked by anxiety and sleep disturbances,” he notes.
It can be scary when such symptoms come on suddenly, with no apparent trigger. Omisade Burney-Scott, 54, of Durham, North Carolina, says she has had episodic depression throughout her life, especially after each of her parents died. “It was associated with grief,' she says. She was surprised when her depression returned right before her 50th birthday, when she wasn’t struggling with any particular challenges in her life — besides perimenopause.
“I thought I was dying. I thought I was sick with cancer. I lost 30 pounds in three months,” Burney-Scott says. She adds that she was also tired, had no appetite, “had a lot of brain fog and was forgetting things and missing appointments sometimes.” She began taking antidepressants, took time off from her job at a nonprofit health foundation and started seeing a therapist every week. “The thing about Black people is that we don’t talk about mental health. But the stigma around menopause and depression creates such high levels of harm,” Burney-Scott notes. "Now I am in a better place."
No woman should suffer through perimenopausal depression, says Stephanie Faubion, M.D., medical director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) and director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health in Jacksonville, Florida. “All doctors taking care of midlife women need to be screening for depression,” she notes. “Asking a woman if they are struggling with their mood should be the first question.”
The good news is that “there’s no reason to believe that anything that treats depression at other stages of life won’t treat this,” says Hadine Joffe, M.D., vice chair for academic and faculty affairs in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “They will.” That might include antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy — or both.
And time will help, Joffe adds. “Once the brain settles and their hormones become low and stable, the risk of depression goes away.”
Participate in a New Study
A clinical trial on perimenopausal depression is underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, to test the safety and side effects of a new drug compound called a selective estrogen receptor modular (SERM). The SERM attaches to a special estrogen receptor that’s normally activated by the sex hormone estrogen, says Peter Schmidt, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, who’s leading the trial. By acting as an impostor for the estrogen lost during perimenopause, the hope is that this SERM will not only reduce perimenopausal depression, as well as anxiety, but have fewer side effects than conventional hormone replacement therapy.
For more information about the clinical trial on perimenopausal depression, call the NIH office of patient recruitment at 301-496-9576.