A recent study showed that more women of menopausal age are taking their lives. Yet suicide rates for women over 55 is falling. Could it be that once we get through the mood swings, brain fog and sleepless nights, a happier and healthier life awaits us? Features Editor Victoria Earle finds out.
Suicide rates for women aged 45 to 54, the most common age for perimenopause and menopause, have risen 6% in 20 years, according to research by the Menopause Experts Group. Women in this age group have the highest female suicide rate, more than double the rate of those aged 15 to 19.
Over the same period, however, rates for over-55 women have fallen 28%. Suicide rates for older women fell by 50 per cent from 1981 to 1994 and have continued to drop since.
There are many reasons why women in perimenopause and menopause suffer poor mental health. Issues can include exhaustion, anxiety, depression and weight gain. Many women have their symptoms dismissed or misdiagnosed and are left to cope alone. Women can also find themselves sandwiched between looking after both children and ageing parents, while those without an understanding partner can find themselves isolated.
During her many years as an advanced psychotherapist, Menopause Experts Group founder Dee Murray treated many women struggling with mental health issues during perimenopause. She says many did not realise the impact that their changing hormones had on their psychology.
“Mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress are hard to deal with, and many women will not know that they can commonly be caused by menopause,” she says. “Women who are not aware they are going through menopause can be caught off guard by feelings of worthlessness, confusion and a complete lack of confidence.”
Nicky Marshall, 52, is a corporate wellness facilitator who was shocked to find her natural confidence was knocked when she started getting perimenopause symptoms at around 48.
“At first the symptoms hit me like a steam train,” she says. “I was having eight or more hot flushes a day and as a wellbeing facilitator in front of rooms full of people I struggled. I was also having night sweats and lots of sleepless nights. Other symptoms included a complete crisis of confidence. I questioned what clothes suited me, whether I should change the hairstyle I’ve had for years and really worried what other people thought of me.”
Interior designer Michelle Armitage is now 54. She noticed perimenopause symptoms at around 43. “I had a lot of health problems from the ages of 43 to 48,” she says. “Changeable mood, no motivation, low energy, joint pain, weight gain, self-doubt, frustration with self and others, frustration with life, and foggy thinking.”
She found memory loss the worst aspect. “I had heavy periods and very low ferritin and iron levels. This had a devastating impact on my memory, which was embarrassing professionally. I remember I held a meeting with my team to discuss a strategy. After we’d been through everything, they told me it was almost an exact duplication of a meeting that I had held the month before, but I had no recollection of it.”
Research shows that many women are happier post-menopause because the body and brain adjust to new hormone levels. This clearly has an impact on their psychology and may partly explain why suicide rates drop off later in life.
What also seems to emerge though, is that women find it easier to prioritise their own needs, to say no, to shake off the weight of expectation and even completely reinvent themselves.
For Michelle things came to a head when she decided to leave her senior HR role, after a period of feeling very unhappy and having time off sick. “I left that job with absolutely no idea about what I was going to do next and my mortgage was sizable so I did need a plan.”
She decided to have a total career change. “When you’re heading for your 50th birthday you start to understand that life is finite and you can start to see the end. I had a very strong feeling that I wanted more. More fun, more joy, more creativity and more frivolousness. It felt like everybody else had more fun than me and I remember thinking in my mind ‘when is it my turn?’”
Knowing she wanted to be more creatively fulfilled, she followed her intuition and found a job working at an interior designer’s shop. She then studied for an online diploma and now has her own interior design business, Light & Frank, which she loves.
“I felt like I had been released from a very dark place and everything I came across was so wonderful in comparison. It’s a cliche to say but often my work does not feel like work. I’ve had to get over feeling guilty about enjoying it. Because it’s so visual I’ve had to get used to praise and thanks. In my HR career, I was rarely thanked and not appreciated properly. Designers get loads of appreciation. In the beginning it was really weird. I think I’m getting used to it now though!”
Nicky decided to use her menopause experience in her wellness business to raise awareness of and empathy for menopause among employers. She and her business partner Sharon compiled a book called The Bounce Back Journey of Women’s Health and recruited two menopause experts to share their personal stories and offer advice. They now deliver specific menopause sessions for companies alongside their other corporate wellness packages.
“We know of so many professional women who leave their job as they can’t cope with the menopause and the stress it causes at work, which I might add is avoidable with a few adjustments and an understanding employer.”
Nicky also started to prioritise her health. She found running and getting sweaty ironically reduced the number of flushes she had, as well as drinking less caffeine and alcohol.
“I now really understand what I need to be healthy and happy. I know I can overcome anything (I suffered and recovered from a stroke 11 years ago but this has been a great reminder!) and I know that the human body and mind are amazing – if given the right tools and circumstances.”
“I’ve been symptom-free for a while now and can look back and see a lot of positives,” she says. “I prioritise sleep and my health generally, I schedule my time and allow for fitness and rest. I’m the fittest and lightest I’ve been for years and now importantly don’t concern myself with what others think of me!”
“I think I am happier, definitely happier in my own skin and content with life. Better health means I have more energy to run after my three grandchildren too!”
Michelle regards her menopause as a metamorphosis.
“For me, the menopause was painful, confusing, and then miraculous.”
“I am the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” says Michelle. “I feel free from so many things that have held me back in the past. I am free from self-doubt, I do more of what I want to do so I am free from people-pleasing. I don’t feel the need to work hard or fill my life with work anymore.
I struggle with some things like maintaining a regular exercise routine but on the whole, I do well. I am currently at the final stages of writing a book about psychology, personality and interiors. This is a bold move for me, but I have written it and I have carved out the time and permission to do so.”
“My younger self would be utterly amazed at the life I live now. Heck, even my 40-year-old self would be amazed!”
If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 or contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS’s help for suicidal thoughts webpage.
Menopause Experts Group offers free training about menopause to women, men and company bosses. For more information visit www.MenopauseExperts.com.
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