Experts are calling for better mental health support for couples undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF), after finding in new research that anxiety, depression, and stress continue even after fertility treatments are resolved.
The team from the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) analysed over 6,500 women over a period of 18 years as part of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health—the largest project of its kind ever conducted in the country.
“Importantly, our research shows that even when women’s fertility journey is successful, and they have a baby, they continue to experience higher levels of psychological distress than women who didn’t have fertility issues,” lead researcher and obstetrician Dr. Tanmay Bagade said.
The researchers found that half of the women with fertility issues experienced psychological distress compared to women without fertility issues. For women whose issues were resolved, 45 percent still reported psychological distress.
In their study, women reporting infertility is steadily increasing, and an estimated one in six Australian couples will experience fertility issues.
In Bagade’s experience, “women are pressured to have children due to societal and cultural norms, and if they are unable to conceive, [they] carry this burden and stigma for a long time.”
“Infertility is emerging to be a significant but ignored public health and equity issue,” he added.
Couples with fertility issues might spend several years on a stressful and expensive journey to conceive using assisted reproductive technology.
The Elusive Male Experience
Studies have found that fertility research and treatment traditionally focus on the woman, putting the man in a marginal position.
The male perspective is rarely heard, and those therapies offered to men are more scarce.
A recent study analysing couples that had just completed an IVF treatment cycle found that men find it just as challenging.
Many were found to experience the loss of masculine identity due to feelings of inadequacy and that they had failed their wives by not being able to achieve societal expectations and norms.
Men also reported a lack of public knowledge about IVF treatments. They felt they did not completely understand the process of egg growth, semen production, embryo development outside the body and the low success rates.
Others reported not knowing much about or being ready for the complications of the drugs used in IVF treatment.
Dr Bagade and his team would like to see their research being used by policymakers and health providers to improve mental health support for couples struggling to conceive.
“The next step is to strengthen the government policies and clinical guidelines to provide equitable access to cost-effective and reliable fertility treatments and to ensure that they receive regular mental health checks and mental health support,” Bagade said.