Approximately one-third of all couples who undergo fertility treatments will be unsuccessful. Unless they are willing to adopt or choose surrogacy, those failed treatments will leave them childless. A new study, published in the journal Human Reproduction, suggests that the women may have extreme difficulty accepting this, and they are likely to suffer long-term mental health issues because of it.
“It was already known that people who have infertility treatment and remain childless have worse mental health than those who do manage to conceive with treatment,” Dr. Sofia Gameiro of the school of Psychology at Cardiff University in the UK, lead author of the study, told Medical News Today.
However, research had never taken into consideration what other factors might exist for mental health issues among women who are unable to reproduce. For this reason, she and a group of researchers conducted the first large study on the different factors that could impact mental health of women a decade after unsuccessful infertility treatment.
Researchers asked women more than 7,000 women from the Netherlands to complete a survey. All of them had initially started fertility treatment between 1995 and 2000 and they were asked to complete questionnaires that inquired about their age, education, marital status, and menopausal status. They were also questioned whether the infertility was due to them, their partners or both, and what treatments had been administered.
In addition to the questionnaires, researchers asked women whether or not they had children, if those children were adopted or biological, and if they still wanted to have children. While the majority of them had accepted their failure of their fertility treatments, researchers found about six percent of them still wanted children at the time of the questionnaire. Researchers found that this desire was directly linked to worse mental health.
“The strength of this association varied according to whether women had children or not,” Dr. Gameiro said. “For these women with no children, those with a child-wish were 2.8 times more likely to have worse mental health than women without a child-wish. For women with children, those that sustained a child-wish were 1.5 times more likely to have worse mental health than those without a child-wish. This link between a sustained wish for children and worse mental health was irrespective of the women’s fertility diagnosis and treatment history.”
Researchers also found that, when infertility was due to male factors or an unknown cause, women tended to have better mental health. Also, those women who had started fertility treatment at an older age had better mental health than those that had started treatment while they were young.
Of course, there are some limitations to the study, including the fact that women without psychological data were less likely to have biological children, and nearly 16 of the women who didn’t respond to the questionnaire said it was too confronting or had reported that it elicited too many emotional memories. Because of this, the researcher say there could have actually been an underestimation of the proportion of women who continued with a child-wish.
Additionally, the study only indicated that there is a connection between the unfulfilled child-wish and worse mental, but doesn’t necessarily prove that the unfulfilled wish is the actual cause of the mental health issues. Still, these findings show the importance of psychological care for infertility patients, particularly over the long-term for women that still desire to have a child.
“It is quite striking to see that women who do have children but still wish for more children report poorer mental health than those who have no children but have come to accept it,” Dr. Gameiro said. “We live in societies that embrace determination and persistence. However, there is a moment when letting go of unachievable goals (be it parenthood or other important life goals) is a necessary and adaptive process for wellbeing. We need to consider if societies nowadays actually allow people to let go of their goals and provide them with the necessary mechanisms to realistically assess when is the right moment to let go.”
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