Northampton writer adds voice to thousands calling for an end to stigma of women’s health
'It took many years for me to actually get to see the right doctor and get heard'
A writer from Northampton has added her voice to thousands of women calling for doctors to open their ears to concerns about gynaecological conditions.
Abi Leach, 27, says women can feel dismissed by medics if they raise concerns, calling her own experience of her GP putting her on the pill at 16 to ‘stabilise’ mood swings and irregular periods as a ‘major gaslighting of health’.
Abi is speaking out as new research by BMI Healthcare, part of Circle Health Group, in partnership with the national charity Wellbeing of Women shows a worsening impact on mental health linked to long delays in GPs and medics correctly identifying a problem.
“It took many years for me to actually get to see the right doctor and get heard,” she said, describing how her periods did not return even after she stopped taking the pill.
“It took three years of me having no periods for the GP to sit up and listen,” she said. “This was after five years of being on the pill non-stop, being swapped around from pill to pill as more research was coming out.”
Four years ago, she was diagnosed by ‘an incredible gynaecologist’ as having polycystic ovarian syndrome - a painful condition whereby ovaries are unable to release an egg; this can cause fertility problems. She also has suspected endometriosis, which causes internal blood pooling, and is on a waiting list for diagnosis.
“There is a huge stigma surrounding women's health,” said Abi. “Growing up, it felt as if we couldn't talk about it because it was 'gross' and 'messy'. I've always felt like I've just had to get on with it.
“Mentally, it's been a challenge at times,” she added. “At times I still get down and upset because I think ‘why me?’. I'm still struggling with the question of having children. Do I even want kids? Am I putting up barriers because I believe I can't have kids naturally?”
Abi’s story is highlighted as part of large-scale research into women’s experience of gynaecological health conditions, carried out by Circle Health Group and published on 8th November 2021. The findings confirm a previously suspected trend of mental health worsening along with delays in diagnosis.
Janet Lindsay, CEO of Wellbeing of Women, said: “Millions of women are affected by their gynaecological and reproductive health, impacting many aspects of their day to day lives. As a society, we need to put greater focus on women’s health and tackle taboos that still exist around some of these issues, so conditions are diagnosed more quickly and women and girls aren’t left feeling dismissed, embarrassed or suffering in pain.”
While diagnosis times vary by condition, the findings show that women can wait years for a correct diagnosis and treatment. In the case of endometriosis, 27% of respondents waited 10 years or more to get diagnosed, with an average waiting time of between five and six years.
Across all conditions, between 10% and 20% of respondents have never been given a diagnosis, despite the women themselves being sure of what condition they have.
Combining data across all conditions about diagnosis times with questions about the impact on mental health, the survey shows a steady rise in a one-to-five scale of impact women said it had on their mental health, from 2.99 out of 5 at a diagnosis time of less than a year to 3.9 out of 5 at ten years or more.
In total, 10,360 women responded to the survey from BMI Healthcare, 849 of whom were from the Northampton area.
The research findings show that 41% of women who responded from the region said that they felt embarrassed or ashamed to talk about their condition, and just 38% felt they could speak openly about it with their friends and family.
It is an even more private issue at work, with 23% admitting they cannot talk about it openly with their manager or employer.
Turning to other women has been a lifeline for some, with 42% saying that they know other women with the same condition and 49% with a similar condition. Surprisingly, online forums and supportive communities have played a lesser part, with just 22% saying they have benefitted from the support.
Sadly, 64% have also been diagnosed with depression and 60% with anxiety alongside their gynaecological condition and 62% say their gynaecological problems have made them feel negatively about the future.
Abi, who has recently resettled in the UK after years of travelling, most recently living in Indonesia for four years, said: “When I was living in Bali, I started raising my voice about my health in the hope to find other people that were going through the same thing. I discovered at least five women that lived within 10 minutes of me on the island that were going through the same thing. It was through this I was advised on the importance of yoga, healthy living and clean eating. A friend also invited me to join a Facebook support group that has thousands of women across the country sharing their experiences.”
Miss Gaity Ahmad, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician with Circle Health Group, said: "If women are aware of possible causes of their symptoms, they are empowered to seek medical advice and self-advocate to find the best treatment for them. Increased knowledge of their gynaecological health can even serve to improve their condition, as women are able to notice simple things that can exacerbate or alleviate their symptoms."
Endometriosis and PCOS both affect one in 10 women. This means that of the over-16s female population of 2 million in the East Midlands, 200,000 women are likely to have one or both conditions.
To download a copy of the findings, including links to helplines and charities, visit: