"Period poverty" — being unable to regularly afford menstrual hygiene products — affects people around the world.

For the millions living in poverty, affording menstrual products is a huge challenge. And it's not just those living in developing countries who struggle. Advocacy group Plan International estimates that 1 in 10 girls in the U.K. — a wealthy, developed nation — are unable to afford sanitary products. In the U.S., 42 million women live at or near the poverty line, and since many public benefit programs consider menstrual products "luxuries," menstrual hygiene is unaffordable.

Countries are battling period poverty in various ways. India recently eliminated its 12% "luxury tax" on sanitary pads and tampons after a widespread campaign put pressure on the government.


In New York state, all public schools now provide free tampons and pads to students, and some schools in the U.K. are offering the same.

But the question of disposable sanitary product affordability also raises questions of environmental sustainability — is providing one-use pads and tampons really the best way to go?

Disposable menstrual products are an environmental blight.

In the U.S. alone, people use and throw away 7 billion plastic tampon applicators per year. According to the book "Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation," the average menstruating person will throw away 250 to 300 pounds of disposable menstrual products during their lifetime. Considering that's about half the population, that's a whole lot of period trash flowing into landfills and polluting our oceans — trash that will long outlive the people throwing it way.

Image via AFP/Getty Images.

And it's not just the disposal of tampons and pads that's an issue. The production of non-reusable menstrual products also uses plastic, rayon, and other materials that cause harm to the environment.

Environmentally friendly menstrual products are also more affordable in the long run — potentially solving both economic and ecological problems.

There are three main reusable options for people with periods: washable pads, period underwear, and menstrual cups — and all three cost far less than pads and tampons in the long run.

Washable pads work the same way cloth diapers work and can be reused until the cloth wears out. Period underwear works similarly, with an absorbent pad built into panties. Both the pads and the undies can be washed in the washing machine.

Sun’s out, pads out. #gladragspads #breezy

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However, access to washing facilities may limit their viability for people living in poverty. Unclean pads can increase risk of infection.

Menstrual cups are another sustainable option. Inserted like a tampon, these silicon or latex cups collect blood; however, unlike a tampon, they can be worn all day or all night. And because they require a minimal amount of clean water to maintain, they are a good option for people living in places with limited sanitation.  

“We have done a small pilot project at a refugee camp in Malawi. And another of our projects in a drought stricken area of Kenya showed that cups were a better option than cloth or washable pads due to the much smaller amount of water required to keep them clean and use them safely," a representative of The Cup Effect told Passblue. "If there is enough water to sustain life, there is enough water to use a menstrual cup safely.”

However, the cup is not a panacea for period poverty either because it does have limitations for certain people, including those who have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM).

So while there's no one perfect solution, looking beyond simply supplying more disposable sanitary products to those living in poverty may be a smart move both economically and ecologically.

Where people and governments can help is defraying the upfront cost of reusable products.

Reusable menstrual products do cost more out of the gate, but the cost is quickly recouped and long-term savings are significant. Product needs and usage varies widely. However, The Penny Hoarder estimates that using a menstrual cup can save $100 per year. And since menstrual cups can be used for 10 years, their environmental impact is minimal and tiny compared with disposable products.

However, that upfront cost makes reusable options out of reach for people who are struggling to make ends meet. A community-led initiative in New Zealand is battling period poverty by making menstrual cups more accessible. The initiative has given out more than 80 menstrual cups in the community since September 2017. Such projects can have a significant effect on people's lives.

Again, there is no single best solution to period poverty as each person will have specific circumstances and needs. However, a good percentage of the population — and our planet — could benefit from providing people sustainable, affordable options for managing menstruation.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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