It's National Infertility Awareness Week here in the United States, a time to honor the one-in-eight couples who struggle to conceive or carry to term. For some extremely brave individuals, this week is an opportunity for them to share their story and receive support from their community. They speak openly about their diagnoses, their treatment plans, and their choice in procedure. Some even share what it feels like to struggle with infertility - the actual emotions of the process. Mental health plays a huge role in the success of fertility treatments and the overall wellbeing of fertility patients.
Infertility Can Cause Depression, Anxiety, & Social Isolation
One of my very best friends struggles with infertility and has for many years. I can’t speak directly for them; I can only speak to my own experience as a bystander. In my attempts to be helpful, I’ve unintentionally been hurtful. Please don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made!
Perhaps even more damning than my own thoughtlessness is the behavior of some of the fertility industry professionals working in the field. Some of these people are either burnt out or unfit for the job! Maybe they just don’t understand how their words can hurt.
Medical Professionals Slip Up, Too
Podcasting couple Matt Mira & Doree Shafrir documented their own IVF journey in Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure. The two spoke frankly about their struggles and personal medical history, disclosing intimate details of their treatment. Early in their second round of IVF, Doree and Matt told their doctor they didn’t want to know the sex of their chosen embryo. But when that same doctor’s office called Doree to share test results, a nurse let slip that the embryo was female. It was deflating. All of the careful thought and consideration Doree had put into this decision was thrown out the window. Later on, the couple switched to a different doctor.
Women Show More Distress During Infertility
It’s common knowledge that infertility can create extreme levels of stress for couples. What can often go overlooked is that, in general, women show more signs of emotional instability when faced with infertility.
My friend’s reproductive endocrinologist (fertility doctor) told her it would be in her best interest to lose weight before pursuing IVF. After a failed cycle, the doctor took a hardline stance on weight, saying that any further treatment would be futile unless my friend dropped a few sizes. His total insensitivity to the situation cut my friend to the core. She sobbed in his office as he stared, callous and stoic. Not once did he suggest a weight loss strategy, provide evidence as to why weight loss was essential, or offer counseling to address her obvious emotional distress.
Let me repeat that: a doctor, whose sole job is to help people who are struggling with infertility, was harsh in his criticism of his patient. It’s one thing to have concern for your patient; it’s another thing entirely to leverage the full emotional force of their infertility against them.
The Psychological Toll Of Infertility
Infertility is a struggle in so many areas: physical, mental, emotional, relational. The would-be parents who bravely venture into this process are exceptionally strong. But even the strongest of us struggle when it comes to matters of health, life, and death.
Last year, Dr. Alice Domar and Kristin Rooney published their findings on the relationship between infertility and stress. Domar reiterated what all other researchers have found: infertility creates immense amounts of personal stress. In fact, women with infertility report depression levels comparable to those who have been diagnosed with cancer! Most patients choose not to tell others about their struggle with infertility, which creates a sense of social isolation. 9.4% of women struggling with their fertility report experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges.
Decrease Stress; Increase Fertility
Here’s the kicker: stress decreases fertility. When patients take advantage of support groups or group therapy, they note a significant reduction in personal stress levels. Their depression and anxiety diminish and participants note a general sense of improved wellbeing. They don’t just feel better; the support groups have higher rates of fertility than patients who chose not to pursue therapy.
Dr. Domar urged healthcare providers to create more opportunities for cognitive group therapy, as it shows the best outcome for the mental health of patients. On a personal level, we can create safe spaces for our friends and family with infertility. Listen before speaking. Don’t offer advice. Just show up.
We need to do better. All of us - those who are able to bear children, those who don’t want kids, and the medical teams working with these patients - need to do better by our loved ones struggling to conceive. While word choice might seem trivial to an outsider, to a person who just learned they have no viable embryos... The way we speak to one another matters. Our behavior can either promote or dismantle the stigma around infertility.