I’ve worked and learned in higher education for a long time now, nearly 20 years. I share that for two reasons. First, to date myself, because I am, in fact, one of millions of women and people in the perimenopausal era. Second, to share that in my fairly long tenure in higher education, I have never, not once, heard even a mention of how to support students (and faculty and staff) experiencing perimenopause and menopause.
You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to solve this mystery. Who experiences menopause? Women, nonbinary people and trans folks. We are supposed to suffer in silence, and I shudder to think of the immensity of that suffering for prior generations. The good news is that we are breaking the silence. We’re posting about menopause on social media, writing articles about it and sharing information in our networks. As a mark of the end of our silence, Oprah has thrown her might behind education and advocacy on this topic. While I’m embarrassed and angered about society’s and higher education’s collective failures here, I’m also hopeful that things are changing for the better.
Let’s start with a quick primer before we turn to practical solutions. Like many of you, I didn’t know squat about the menopause transition until I entered it. I had a vague thought that menopause was something that caused hot flashes and that lasted for around a year, happening sometime in your early 50s. When I started soaking through my bedsheets at age 42 and my anxiety turned from a mean house cat who’d occasionally pull out its claws to Godzilla tearing down buildings, I knew something was up. What I’ve since learned is that menopause is a marathon, not a sprint. Perimenopause is the multiyear time period leading up to menopause, which is, to get technical, the day a woman or person has gone one year without getting their period. Postmenopause is the time period after menopause.
The entirety of the menopause transition lasts anywhere from about seven years, on average, to 14. While we don’t have exact numbers of people in higher education who are moving through this phase of life, we do know that there are about 1.6 million women enrolled in higher education each year who are over the age of 35 (and that number doesn’t include faculty and staff). It’s safe to say that a significant portion of your campus community is in need of support for perimenopause and menopause, for which symptoms include not only hot flashes and anxiety, as I’ve mentioned, but insomnia, depression, cognitive challenges like brain fog and often-chaotic changes to the menstrual cycle. All of which can obviously act as barriers to success in learning and in work.
With these fundamentals in mind, let’s dive in to practical solutions to supporting students, faculty and staff in perimenopause and menopause.
- Cut through both the silence and the noise to provide quality information.
We are in an interesting liminal space between the era of silence and the era of overwhelm when it comes to menopause. On one hand, many folks report that even their doctors seem to know very little about this condition and its treatments, such as hormone replacement therapy. On the other, social media’s being flooded with so-called experts selling menopausal snake oils.
When you’re sweaty and anxious, you just want real answers that can help you feel better. Higher education health centers can and should educate the campus community, and it’s critical that your team knows where to get quality information. A solid starting point is the North American Menopause Society, or NAMS. They have a robust website filled with resources for patients. Additionally, doctors and other health-care providers can become NAMS certified, and I’ve found that NAMS-certified doctors are generally very trustworthy. In addition, I’m a fan of Doctors Jen Gunter, Heather Hirsch and Sharon Malone, who are all active on social media and share a ton of free information there. Consider sharing links to their sites.
- Design from the margins.
Menopause is yet another space where we can practice some good intersectionality. While cisgender women make up the largest group of folks experiencing menopause, they have the most resources within an incredibly underresourced area. Practice the art of designing from the margins. Start with the least resourced folks.
Make sure that your resources and outreach are inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. The Queer/LGBTQIA+ Menopause website is an excellent starting point. Next, make sure that your approach acknowledges racist health disparities. When planning initiatives to support campus members in perimenopause and menopause, representation is key. Consider reaching out to a variety of campus groups to invite them into the conversation to make sure all voices are heard and that your initiatives line up with the needs of the most marginalized members of your community.
- Keep it simple.
I started this piece by sharing that I’ve never heard even a whisper of acknowledgment of this issue in two decades in higher education. Here’s the good news: when you start from the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. That’s also my favorite cooking motto: cook something. Put something on the dinner table.
Design a webpage with resources. Offer a workshop on professional development day. Open up a private space in your online community for menopause discussions. Heck, share this article with your team via email. It’s a start. Keep it simple. Share quality, useful resources. Listen. Get started.
- This is we work, not me work.
Higher ed is infamous for making one person on campus the champion of an entire massive issue. Justin is in charge of DEI. Brianna is in charge of student retention. Sage is in charge of mental health.
Supporting folks throughout the menopause years is a team effort. I imagine that health services, human resources and faculty development offices might lead the charge. Make sure that students, faculty and staff are all represented. Do not relegate this to the sole responsibility of the already-overwhelmed director of health services. Our community’s health and well-being are everyone’s responsibility.
- Prioritize mental health.
As I write this article, death by suicide is in the headlines. More Americans than ever before lost their lives to suicide last year. This is shocking. But it’s not surprising. (As a reminder, please call 988 for help.)
Clearly, whatever we’re doing isn’t working. We need to continue to treat mental illness and also dig at the roots of our collective despair. These are conversations that certainly extend beyond the challenges of menopause, but that also must include menopause in light of the fact that anxiety and depression are common symptoms. I know that many campuses are doing a lot of work to offer robust mental health supports to everyone on campus, but I also know that most of those conversations do not dare utter the words “perimenopause” or “menopause.” Let’s change that.
- Balance structure and flexibility.
I am once again here to implore you, employers, faculty and staff, to recall the early days of the pandemic, when we prioritized flexibility to help folks in crisis. We were so close to learning how to live in what we are now realizing is a permanent crisis. But then it was very quickly back to business as usual.
Folks living with health challenges need flexibility above all else. We also need structure. Give us a clear path to success, whether for your faculty and staff or for your students. But should health difficulties derail us, be flexible and caring. This might look like reviewing your process for incomplete grades or your campus late-assignment policy. It might look like reviewing your sick-time policy. It might look like leaders on campus being more intentional about how they communicate, urging people to prioritize their health and offering support when people need breaks or time off.
- Celebrate our transformation.
I recently saw a teenager I hadn’t seen in a few years, who is emerging on the other side of puberty. He looked very little like the young child I remembered. I was struck by the metamorphosis, and it got me thinking about how menopause is often called a second puberty. I too, I realized, was going through a radical transformation. Case in point: for all my life, my favorite season was summer and my least favorite was winter. Over the past year, that has switched. I’m hot enough, and I want to be in my house, reading books, with snow falling outside. I’ve also started to research the possibility of returning to art school, a dream of mine that’s been long buried.
Menopause is a transformational time, and isn’t higher education in the business of transformation? Call in folks in menopause more explicitly. Invite us to study our hidden dreams. Invite us to lead the charge for a better world. Invite us to share how we navigate the hard days, wisdom that most humans could benefit from in our current era.
- Turn down the goddamn heat.
I’m talking to you, HVAC folks. It’s. Too. Hot.
This piece is by no means the entirety of what we can do to better support our students, faculty and staff in perimenopause and menopause. But I do hope that it’s a jumping-off point for our entire community to come together and do better.