Evidence-Based Reviews

Emergency contraception for psychiatric patients

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Dispelling certain myths can help you prescribe EC before your patient needs it.



Ms. A, age 22, is a college student who presents for an initial psychiatric evaluation. Her body mass index (BMI) is 20 (normal range: 18.5 to 24.9), and her medical history is positive only for childhood asthma. She has been treated for major depressive disorder with venlafaxine by her previous psychiatrist. While this antidepressant has been effective for some symptoms, she has experienced adverse effects and is interested in a different medication. During the evaluation, Ms. A remarks that she had a “scare” last night when the condom broke while having sex with her boyfriend. She says that she is interested in having children at some point, but not at present; she is concerned that getting pregnant now would cause her depression to “spiral out of control.”

Unwanted or mistimed pregnancies account for 45% of all pregnancies.1 While there are ramifications for any unintended pregnancy, the risks for patients with mental illness are greater and include potential adverse effects on the neonate from both psychiatric disease and psychiatric medication use, worse obstetrical outcomes for patients with untreated mental illness, and worsening of psychiatric symptoms and suicide risk in the peripartum period.2 These risks become even more pronounced when psychiatric medications are reflexively discontinued or reduced in pregnancy, which is commonly done contrary to best practice recommendations. In the United States, the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization has erased federal protections for abortion previously conferred by Roe v Wade. As a result, as of early October 2022, abortion had been made illegal in 11 states, and was likely to be banned in many others, most commonly in states where there is limited support for either parents or children. Thus, preventing unplanned pregnancies should be a treatment consideration for all medical disciplines.3

Psychiatrists may hesitate to prescribe emergency contraception (EC) due to fears it falls outside the scope of their practice. However, psychiatry has already moved towards prescribing nonpsychiatric medications when doing so clearly benefits the patient. One example is prescribing metformin to address metabolic syndrome related to the use of second-generation antipsychotics. Emergency contraceptives have strong safety profiles and are easy to prescribe. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to increasing access to emergency contraceptives for psychiatric patients.4 These include the erroneous belief that laboratory and physical exams are needed before starting EC, cost and/or limited stock of emergency contraceptives at pharmacies, and general confusion regarding what constitutes EC vs an oral abortive (Table 15-10). Psychiatrists are particularly well-positioned to support the reproductive autonomy and well-being of patients who struggle to engage with other clinicians. This article aims to help psychiatrists better understand EC so they can comfortably prescribe it before their patients need it.

Oral emergency contraception myths and facts

What is emergency contraception?

EC is medications or devices that patients can use after sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. They do not impede the development of an established pregnancy and thus are not abortifacients. EC is not recommended as a primary means of contraception,9 but it can be extremely valuable to reduce pregnancy risk after unprotected intercourse or contraceptive failures such as broken condoms or missed doses of birth control pills. EC can prevent ≥95% of pregnancies when taken within 5 days of at-risk intercourse.11

Methods of EC fall into 2 categories: oral medications (sometimes referred to as “morning after pills”) and intrauterine devices (IUDs). IUDs are the most effective means of EC, especially for patients with higher BMIs or who may be taking medications such as cytochrome P450 (CYP)3A4 inducers that could interfere with the effectiveness of oral methods. IUDs also have the advantage of providing highly effective ongoing contraception.6 However, IUDs require in-office placement by a trained clinician, and patients may experience difficulty obtaining placement within 5 days of unprotected sex. Therefore, oral medication is the most common form of EC.

Oral EC is safe and effective, and professional societies (including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists6 and the American Academy of Pediatrics7) recommend routinely prescribing oral EC for patients in advance of need. Advance prescribing eliminates barriers to accessing EC, increases the use of EC, and does not encourage risky sexual behaviors.10

Overview of oral emergency contraception

Two medications are FDA-approved for use as oral EC: ulipristal acetate and levonorgestrel. Both are available in generic and branded versions. While many common birth control pills can also be safely used off-label as emergency contraception (an approach known as the Yuzpe method), they are less effective, not as well-tolerated, and require knowledge of the specific type of pill the patient has available.9 Oral EC appears to work primarily through delay or inhibition of ovulation, and is unlikely to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.9

Continue to: Ulipristal acetate


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