Content warning: This story reports on suicide and mental health.
It’s easy to feel, at my stage of life (by which I mean, algorithm), that menopause is everywhere. Prominent Kiwi wāhine are writing books on the subject, there’s a plethora of podcasts themed around it, and consumerism has entered the chat.
The first time I went through menopause, in 2003, (long story, I was 26 and put into a chemically induced menopause as an adjacent treatment to breast cancer), the only whispers of relief were a little known herb called Black Cohosh, and there was certainly no one to talk about it with. Now, many people have made menopause their ‘brand’ and pharmaceutical and vitamin companies are pumping products out to feed the capitalist structure of fear faster than my poor foggy brain can keep up with what’s happening around me.
Among the many people opening up these conversations is Hollywood star Naomi Watts, who spoke on a panel about it at SXSW Sydney last week hosted by journalist and Mamma Mia founder Mia Freedman. She was also joined by former model Alison Brahe-Daddo and Dr Ginni Mansberg. I was there, and here’s what I learned.
1. “Menopause is just one day,” explained Dr Ginni Mansberg, pointing out that it’s the day that marks 12 months since your last period - a time that you’re unlikely to have marked or remembered. Everything leading up to that is perimenopause.
Some years ago (likely back when I was in menopause the first time) there were seven symptoms associated with the ‘condition’. There are now 53, the latest being chronic cough. Dr Mansberg explained that everybody’s hormones are different and can change greatly from day to day. For this reason, she advises against doing hormone blood tests as a marker; results will always vary.
2. Perimenopause and menopause can be a time of severe emotional instability, with 1 in 3 women experiencing anxiety or depression over this period (mom joke intended).
Dr Mansberg pointed out that while much research, attention and funding is given to pre and post-natal mental health (and rightfully so), mental health in perimenopause is sorely lacking, yet it’s the peak time for suicide in women. A fact I find wild but unsurprising, all at the same time.
Panelist Brahe-Daddo admitted to having suicidal ideation in her worst moments. “The emotional toll was the absolute hardest thing,” she explained, describing herself as severely anxious and depressed. “I couldn't see myself coming out of it.” Watts alluded that the emotional toll she was going through contributed to the breakdown of her relationship with Liev Schreiber.
3. Shame was the strongest feeling expressed by Watts and Brahe-Daddo, with Watts describing herself as unsexy and ‘unfuckable’.
“I’d been told earlier in my career by an agent to work as much as I could before I turned 40 and became unfuckable.” She described the cacophony of emotions wrought by her hormones as shame, panic, loneliness. She couldn’t sleep and was experiencing brain fog, depression and weeping.
Similarly, Brahe-Daddo, a former Dolly cover girl, also spoke about rage, weepiness, extreme anxiety and loneliness. “I felt so embarrassed by ageing,” she explained. “I felt like I was letting people down. Everyone knew me as the Dolly cover girl and I went from a size 6 to a size 14.”
4. Perimenopause can be devastating to your career, and is responsible for many women leaving the workforce (1 in 10, according to Dr Mansberg). This is another reason it’s absolutely imperative people get the help and support they need before making big, life changing (and potentially life limiting) decisions.
5. Watts described herself as incredibly fortunate she had a great doctor to “walk her through it”, and get her on the right medications and lifestyle adjustments. Dr Mansberg explained that general practitioners aren’t required to do training on menopause, and as such some will be far greater equipped to deal with it than others. All three women urged the importance of ‘shopping’ for a doctor (while acknowledging their privilege in being able to do so).
“You may have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your handsome prince,” explained Dr Mansberg in a somewhat clumsy but easily understood analogy. Dr Mansberg also pointed out not everyone is a candidate for HRT (hi! I’m the problem, it’s me! Although I’m increasingly seeing the link between it and cancer as tenuous), and HRT is not the only treatment. It is, however, the only treatment that can potentially address all 53 side effects.
6. “We’re living longer, we could have half our lives ahead of us,” pointed out Watts, emphasising the importance of advocating for our health through this period in our life. “It’s a vibrant time in your life, do not hide.”
She recently set up a skin and intimate care company, Stripes, partly to help her skin (and other body parts!) navigate the drastic change they were experiencing (‘red, dry and itchy’ were words used to describe both faces and vaginas), but also because she was wholly unimpressed by how companies were speaking to women in their 40s and beyond.
Brahe-Daddo pointed out that the challenge of perimenopause gave her the motivation to be happier, kinder. “I learnt to put myself at the top of the list, and I really needed to be kinder to myself. I’d been so hard on myself; the way I looked.”
7. “I take it very seriously,” said Watts, who also spoke frankly about dating her now husband Billy Cruddup in the midst of such change in her mind and body. “We need better research. We need to advocate for our doctors to do better.”
The last, powerful words came from Dr Ginni Mansberg: “We will be the last generation who didn’t know, who didn’t talk about it. We will break the cycle.”
Rebecca travelled to SXSW Sydney as a guest of HP
Where to get help
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.
Anxiety New Zealand 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Depression.org.nz 0800 111 757 or text 4202
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254
Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Yellow Brick Road 0800 732 825
thelowdown.co.nz Web chat, email chat or free text 5626
What's Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon-11pm and weekends, 3pm-11pm. Online chat is available 3pm-10pm daily.
If it is an emergency, click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team.
In a life-threatening situation, call 111.