Infertility affects one in every seven couples in the UK, and it can have a significant impact on mental health. It has a wide range of effects, according to new research published in Reproductive Biomedicine. It is an online, international, quantitative survey to assess the impact of infertility on mental health and relationships, as part of a larger cross-sectional study to investigate the overall time taken to progress through the infertility journey and its impact on all aspects of patients’ and partners’ lives. A total of 1944 individuals were surveyed from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, and China. The preliminary findings of this study, which were first presented at the 36th ESHRE Annual Meeting (5–8 July 2020) and published in September 2021, found that respondents waited an average of 3.2 years for a medical infertility diagnosis, spent 2.0 years attempting to conceive without assistance before seeking treatment, and received 1.6 years of treatment before becoming pregnant. The study revealed a substantial divide between individuals who are affected by mental illness and those who seek help. More than half of respondents (60.4%; n=1,174) said their infertility experience had harmed their mental health. During their infertility experience, less than half (44%) reported obtaining mental health services, only a third (32%) turned to the internet for help (groups and forums) and only around a quarter (22%) sought help from a local organisation. The disparity between the number of women and men with impaired mental health and those who sought care demonstrates the need for a renewed focus on the psychological support provided to all persons in their journey of family building.
Kira Dalgaard, vice president and global head of medical affairs at Ferring Pharmaceuticals explained that understanding the impact of infertility in key demographics such as male patients and partners of infertile patients is an unmet need, and added that these perspectives are frequently overlooked in research and in care which can have major consequences because a third of infertility issues are due to male reproductive capacity issues, a third is related to female reproductive ability concerns, and a third is unknown. She continued that this study has emphasised the intricacies and effect of emotions of all those involved, at all stages of diagnosis and treatment, and has reinforced their commitment to providing mental health care for everyone on their individual reproductive journey as they believed in everyone’s right to a family and recognised that not everyone’s journey to form a family is easy or straightforward. The study led by Cardiff University in partnership with Ferring Pharmaceuticals, found substantial changes in the nature and strength of emotions felt at various stages of treatment. Depression, defeat, loneliness, and stigma were all significantly higher at diagnosis than during therapy, although the impact on mental health grew as treatment duration and failed pregnancy attempts increased.
These findings suggest that negative feelings should be explicitly addressed by healthcare practitioners and customised to the individual’s needs during the period of the treatment journey when the feelings are most prominent, in order to avoid long-term impacts on patients. There is also a larger emphasis on mental health care for couples who have gone through numerous treatment cycles. “My partner” was the most prevalent source of support mentioned in the study. While friends and relatives can help, this study underscores the need for greater provision of – or information about the availability of – external sources of support for infertile patients and their partners, such as patient support tools and counsellors. Increased education by the healthcare professional team on the availability of patient support groups or online forums to enable patients to interact with others experiencing similar emotions could be beneficial for patients suffering isolation or loneliness. Professor Jacky Boivin, lead study author from Cardiff University, said that it’s positive that over half of respondents (53%) had mental health help offered or suggested by a healthcare professional, but improved, personalised patient treatment is necessary throughout the patient journey, and the implications on partners must be considered.