For too long, the subjects of fertility and infertility have been taboo. We might not even realise it, but our awkwardness and reluctance around these subjects continue to foster a culture where people are afraid to open up to others. This applies not only to their fertility problems but also the the devastating impact sub-fertility has on mental health.
It’s estimated that approximately 1 in 7 couples will have difficulty conceiving. This has an effect not only on their physical health but on their emotional wellbeing. Of these, 90% experience depression symptoms of some kind and a shocking 42% report suicidal thoughts. When prominent social media personalities share their stories, as Chrissy Teigen and John Legend recently did, it helps to open up the discussion a little bit more – but many couples continue to suffer in silence.
Fertility Family has spoken to Kate Davies, Fertility Nurse Consultant at YourFertilityJourney.com, as well as founder of psychology website ‘Psychreg’ and member of the British Psychological Society, Dennis Relojo-Howell. They answer some of the most common questions asked by those struggling with fertility and also reveal how to find support for the psychological impact this can have, especially during lockdown.
What are the signs that your mental health is being affected by an infertility diagnosis?
The close links between infertility and mental health might surprise you. Dennis Relojo-Howell says: “There is a bidirectional relationship between infertility and mental health disorders. Studies have demonstrated that infertility can lead to depression and anxiety. Patients can also experience stigma and reduced self-esteem. Some women can suffer from a range of mental health issues – anything from grief and loss, to full-blown anxiety disorders and mood disorders. The same is also true for those with mental health issues; they are at risk of developing infertility”.
Tips on looking after your mental health throughout fertility issues
1. Be open with your partner
Men can really struggle to open up and talk honestly about infertility. This is beginning to change, but make sure that you have frank and open discussions as a couple and encourage feelings to be shared. There are also resources you can direct them to which might help your partner to express how he’s feeling.
The Easy Bit is a short film of six men telling their stories openly and honestly to encourage other men to talk. Recently, reality TV star Chris Hughes raised awareness of testicular cancer and fertility in the documentary Me, My Brother and Our Balls. Social media groups like Male Fertility Support also allow men to safely discuss their feelings in a male-only environment.
The rise of social media fertility influencers is helping to remove the stigma and taboo and get people talking like never before, but we’ve still got a long way to go to really make a difference.
2. Talk to your family and friends – don’t believe in ‘taboo’
Talking frankly and openly about things we consider taboos is the only way to break them. It shares the mental load – and it’s only once you’ve started to talk about a topic that you can start to uncover the support system around you that’s willing to help.
Stigma and taboo still play a huge part in the link between infertility and mental health problems. This is especially clear when it comes to pregnancy loss. Recent research showed that the tendency is not to talk about early pregnancy loss at all – especially in the first 12 weeks when people have not revealed to those close to them that they are pregnant.
The idea that you shouldn’t talk about pregnancy until after 12 weeks is, unfortunately, serving only to silence women and couples further, making it more difficult to get the help they need.
3. Remember you’re not alone
The staggering statistics speak for themselves: a survey by Fertility Network UK found that 90% of women and men struggling with fertility problems reported feeling depressed. 50% said that they felt out of control and frustrated, helpless, sad, fearful and worried. Most worryingly, 42% said they had had suicidal thoughts.
Mental health issues don’t only revolve around women trying to conceive. A 2020 research study from Imperial College London found that of women who experienced pregnancy loss, 29% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress, 24% had anxiety and 12% had depression. At 9 months after pregnancy loss, 18% of women still had post-traumatic stress.
Mental health support for women and couples going through infertility remains woefully poor in the UK, so unfortunately it’s often necessary to seek out help yourself.
Once they’re accessing fertility treatments, patients do get access to counselling, but this is often a one-off session and is not adequate to support someone’s complex mental health needs. You might decide to access privately funded counselling or coaching, and many women and couples seek local or online support groups through Fertility Network UK. More recently, social media platforms have become a go-to place for fertility support.
Turn to online support networks, especially in lockdown
Social media has become a much-needed avenue of help for people, not only to bolster their mental health but also provide advice. With many fertility clinics closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, online platforms and forums have been offering support like never before. Many professional and influencers’ social media accounts have seen a huge rise in engagement and requests for help, showing that this new way of supporting mental health and infertility may be the way forward.
Where to seek help:
- Fertility Network UK is the number one charity for anyone experiencing fertility problems in the UK. They run a range of local online support groups.
- The British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) offers a range of specialist counselling services.
- Search on Facebook for “fertility support groups” – there are many, and those which have thousands of members are likely to have the best reputations.
- HFEA, the government regulator provides free, clear and impartial information on UK fertility clinics, IVF and other types of fertility treatment, and donation.