Infertility is defined as a person not being able to conceive or become pregnant after one year of unprotected sex. About one in six couples in Canada experience infertility. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, about 12 per cent of women aged 15-44 have difficulty becoming pregnant.
Mental health struggles can follow a couple’s journey of attempting to become pregnant. Studies have shown that after one year of infertility, a woman is twice as likely to become depressed. Research has also shown that high anxiety can deter a woman’s changes of becoming pregnant.
A new study published in PLOS One looked at the psychological impact of fertility treatment suspensions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This study was aimed at assessing the impact that fertility treatment suspensions related to the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women's psychological wellbeing,” study author Jennifer Gordon told us. “It also looked at factors that predicted or protected against its negative psychological impact.”
Gordon is an Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. She is also the Director of the Women's Mental Health Research Unit and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Canada Research Chair in Women's Mental Health.
“We were inspired to conduct this study based on anecdotal reports about how difficult it's been for women and based on reports in the media,” Gordon told us, “so we had a hunch that women would report that treatment suspensions had had a big emotional toll on them.”
The study looked at 92 women from Canada and the United States whose fertility treatments were cancelled due to COVID-19.
“My research is devoted to improving mental health resources for women struggling with infertility and we work closely with women who have personal experience with infertility in doing this work so we hear about how incredibly difficult it's been for women,” Gordon told us. “At the same time, we want to know what kinds of things help women to cope with such a difficult situation, which is why we also looked at factors that predicted better or worse coping.”
Participants of the study were recruited via social media.
“We recruited women whose fertility treatments had been cancelled via Facebook,” Gordon told us, “and asked them to complete a survey asking about the impact that treatment suspensions had had, their approach to thinking about and coping with their infertility, as well as the amount and quality of the social support that they receive.”
The women completed numerous questionnaires about depressive symptoms, their perceived mental health impact, and whether they experienced a change in quality of life.
“Women reported that treatment suspensions had had quite a negative impact on their mental health and quality of life,” Gordon told us. “We also found that women who reported having better quality social support fared better, as did women who were more accepting of their condition and emotions. Conversely, women who coped by avoiding infertility reminders such as pregnant women or babies, fared worse. Women who used a coping strategy called "defensive pessimism" - that is, the tendency to protect yourself by expecting things to turn out badly - also fared worse.”
Gordon was not surprised by the results.
“These results are fairly in line with what we've found in the past but it is surprising that these factors continue to have an important influence on mental health even in the context of such an enormous stressor,” Gordon told us. “They help inform research aimed at developing psychological interventions that increase resilience in the face of infertility. Namely, these results suggest that educating loved ones about how to provide quality social support is important. Interventions that help women accept the emotions that come with infertility may also improve coping.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com