Emergency Contraception for Psychiatric Patients

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

Kevin K. Makino, MD, PhD; Susan Hatters Friedman, MD; Jaina Amin, MD; Lulu Zhao, MD


Curr Psychiatr. 2022;21(11):34-45. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


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 1 [5–10]). 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.