Brainstorm: Facts behind the flow

Neya Thanikachalam, Web Editor

MAHIE GOPALKA: Menstruators aren’t choosing just to have periods. This is such a basic part of health.

SAMANVI KANUGULA: Bleeding is not a luxury.

MAHIE GOPALKA: This is really just a human right.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: You just heard Mahie Gopalka and Samanvi Kanugula, two of the founders of PERIOD. at Northwestern, Northwestern’s chapter of PERIOD., an organization dedicated to addressing period poverty.

Hi everyone! This is Neya Thanikachalam, and I’m back with another episode of Brainstorm — a podcast exploring all things health, science and tech. This podcast is the first episode of Period Pressure, a series about menstrual health and period poverty. About half the global population menstruates, but lack of supplies and stigma continue to be an issue. In response, movements have emerged to increase awareness of menstrual health issues and provide accessible menstrual supplies. 

And now, COVID-19 has highlighted how disparities in health care and limited access to resources affect menstrual health. Periods don’t stop for a pandemic. So what exactly is a period? What does it mean to menstruate?

DEVIN LAGASSE: Menstrual health is referring to anything relating to do with your period or your menstrual cycle. So, it could involve conditions like endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts. It could involve mental health conditions like PMDD, which is premenstrual dysphoric disorder. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s Devin Lagasse, a STI/HIV specialist who works with Planned Parenthood of Illinois. Devin has spent a lot of time educating people about reproductive health and menstrual health.

Devin said access to different resources are essential to staying healthy. Menstruators use them to manage their health hygiene. Staying clean, she said, is one of the best ways to stay healthy. 

DEVIN LAGASSE: So I mean the basic things that you need are access to places to wash your hands, wash your body, access to the types of menstrual care products that they prefer — whether that’s pads, whether that’s tampons, whether that’s a reusable option — whatever that looks like for somebody, whatever they’re comfortable with.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But accessing these resources isn’t always simple. Menstruators can be affected by outside factors, like homelessness or gender, which could limit their access to resources and, in turn, can impact their menstrual health.

People who identify with affinity groups or those who live below the poverty line already struggle to access resources. In the midst of a pandemic, these issues are only heightened.

Anya Patel is a graduate student at Northwestern, and she’s done research focused on menstrual hygiene management in crises. 

ANYA PATEL: Something that we know, and it’s been studied across the world, is how natural disasters disproportionately impact women. And if we create the analogy, which I think it is not so much of a stretch to say, that COVID-19 is a form of a natural disaster. Looking at different gender indicators, women’s access to menstrual products, the ability to manage your menstrual cycle, in a holistic manner, in a comprehensive manner I think is a really interesting path to be looking at.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: We often associate menstrual health with women. However, this is not just a women’s issue. Many people who don’t identify as women may menstruate, such as trans or nonbinary individuals. 

DEVIN LAGASSE: Menstrual health is not just a physical thing, it can also be a mental thing. Obviously, there are some added challenges around just your identity, being in conflict with what your body is doing. And then, in addition, because of the world that we live in, people who identify as men or nonbinary folks may have trouble just accessing basic resources, whether that is accessing the menstrual care products that they need to finding health care professionals that are willing to work with them, willing to answer their questions.

I think in order to take care of our bodies, we need to understand how they work. We need to be able to talk to our health care providers about them and if we don’t have the information we need to do that, it can really affect your ability to practice good menstrual health.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Homeless menstruators also face barriers that prevent them from practicing good menstrual health. COVID-19 has only made it more difficult to access resources and manage their cycle.

DEVIN LAGASSE: Less access to public spaces where they can use washroom facilities, places that normally might provide them with free tampons, or pads or menstrual care products may be closed because they are trying to limit the number of people that come into those spaces. I’m pretty sure that a couple of the churches downtown usually offer free menstrual care products to people experiencing homelessness, but right now, they may be closed. Organizations that do this work already of providing period products throughout the city may see a decrease in donations.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Unfortunately, Devin said, one of the reasons why these issues are so often overlooked, especially by non-menstruators, is because menstruation hasn’t been normalized yet.

However, menstruation is a natural process, and learning more about periods and the menstrual cycle is one way to learn how to stay healthy.

DEVIN LAGASSE: The ways that our bodies work, the ways that they function are really amazing. Helping people understand that this is important, this is necessary right, like the reason we’re all here is because somebody had a period. And it’s an essential part of just living. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s it for this week. Stay tuned for the next episode of Period Pressure, where we take a deep dive into the stigma around periods and education surrounding menstrual health. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam. The summer managing editors of The Daily Northwestern are James Pollard and Sneha Dey. The summer editor is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @neyachalam

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