Carolyn Harris MP
Menopause. A word that is often said in hush tones or not used at all. Menopause is truly one of the last taboos; the stigma, shame and misconceptions are all barriers to treatment. If we are to support the millions of women experiencing perimenopause or menopause, we must break down barriers and discuss this topic openly and boldly, women should not be expected to suffer in silence any longer.
Menopause will affect most women. At present, approximately 13 million of us in the UK are either perimenopausal or post-menopausal. That is almost a fifth of the entire population. The average age women reach the menopause is 51 but many women experience early menopause owing to medical conditions, treatment, or surgery.
When we think of menopause symptoms, we think of the obvious — hot flushes and mood swings but there are many more and they can be life-changing. Education is key to the cause, and I would like to seize this opportunity to share the full list of symptoms:
- hot flushes — short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, which can make your skin red and sweaty
- night sweats — hot flushes that occur at night
- difficulty sleeping — this may make you feel tired and irritable during the day
- a reduced sex drive (libido)
- problems with memory and concentration
- vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex
- mood changes
- low mood or anxiety
- palpitations — heartbeats that suddenly become more noticeable
- joint stiffness, aches and pains
- reduced muscle mass
- recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- increased risk of developing other problems, such as weak bones (osteoporosis).
Symptoms usually start a few months or years before your periods stop, known as the perimenopause, and can persist for some time afterwards. On average, most symptoms last around 4 years from your last period. However, around 1 in every 10 women experience them for up to 12 years.
With so many years of living with these symptoms and so many women affected, you would expect all women to be properly educated, treatment pathways to be clear, access to treatment to be straight forward and ongoing support systems such as work-related policies to be in place. They are not. Menopause support in the UK needs serious attention.
Current treatment options for women are woefully inadequate. Referrals to NHS menopause clinics can take several months because of the limited number of places — the result of the ongoing cuts to services. For many women unable to take HRT, particularly those who have had breast or gynaecological cancers, there is no support at all.
The lack of menopause understanding in primary care is failing too many women as well. GPs should follow up-to-date guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on the menopause and hormone replacement therapy, and they should recommend such treatment if it is appropriate. But this is not happening. Sadly, far too many women are denied this path, because many doctors are unaware, have a lack confidence in this area or are ill informed. Women are therefore relying on the chance that the GP they visit is one of those who is familiar with NICE guidelines and is confident in treating menopause. Healthcare should not be a lottery.
A recent survey on menopause support revealed the shocking truth about training in medical schools. An astounding 41% of UK universities do not have mandatory menopause education on the curriculum. Is it any wonder that out of desperation, women are spending obscene amounts of money on private specialists? Access to free healthcare is what we hold most dear in the UK; what we are proud of, and no woman should be out of pocket to access health services. Every woman suffering the effects of the menopause is entitled to the same quality of care.
The symptoms of menopause can result in devastating consequences for many women; career loss, relationship breakdowns and poor mental health are more common than you realise. Since I have begun campaigning on menopause, I have been inundated with letters and emails from women who have bravely shared with me their own devastating experiences. These women, like so many others deserve to be heard and change is desperately needed to prevent further suffering. The wider harms of misdiagnosis and lack of treatment are incalculable yet despite this, menopause remains over-looked and under-resourced.
Improving the quality of life for women affected by menopause requires a holistic approach. It will take a multi-disciplinary effort to bring about meaningful change; policy making, improving education and training, changing legislation, and raising awareness. Which is why I have formed and chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Menopause. The Group will provide a platform in the heart of Parliament that highlights the issues and challenges around menopause that deserve attention, as well as act as a forum for discussion. We will be campaigning for
- Workplace changes to support those experiencing symptoms of perimenopause and menopause
- Additional training for medical professionals
- Improved education in schools
- Better public health messaging on menopause symptoms, services, and support
Women should not be left to suffer through a lack of awareness, insufficient support, or financial constraints. Every woman experiencing perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms should be safe in the knowledge that they will be able to access the right treatment and support in every aspect of their lives. It is time for a Menopause Revolution.
Carolyn Harris is the MP for Swansea East and deputy leader of Welsh Labour