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Lack of psychological support for patients dealing with infertility

Only half of patients dealing with infertility issues in the UK receive psychological support

Ingrid Torjesen

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Psychological support for those dealing with infertility and its treatment is received by only half of those who want it in the UK - with many left to suffer with anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, according to a study* published in Human Fertility.

The study, conducted by researchers at Middlesex University and Fertility Network UK, involved a survey of 796 patients who had experienced problems with getting or staying pregnant. Of these, 80% had received one or more rounds of fertility treatment. The online survey was based on a similar survey carried out in 1997.

The new results show that, despite some improvements since 1997 in the availability of funded fertility treatments (such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF)) and psychological support, distress levels remain high. Respondents reported feeling, on average, sad, frustrated and worried almost 'all of the time', with 42% having experienced suicidal feelings at least 'occasionally'. These negative feelings were the same whether or not the respondents were receiving fertility treatment, with those for whom treatments had been unsuccessful reporting the highest levels of distress.

Three quarters of respondents (75%) expressed an interest in receiving counselling to help deal with their negative emotions if it was free, but only 45% actually received any counselling and over half of these had to fund some of it themselves. This was an improvement over the situation in 1997, when just 31% received counselling and almost 88% had to fund it themselves.

In addition, over half (55%) of respondents said they had to pay for at least part of their fertility treatment, such as IVF. Again, this is an improvement on the situation in 1997, when 75% had to pay. The majority of those paying had to pay over £5,000, and a ‘postcode lottery’ exists with the number of funded treatments respondents reported being able to receive varying from zero to three.

Fertility treatment failure was quite common - 68% of those who had received fertility treatment had failed to become pregnant at least once, and 31% had achieved a pregnancy but no live birth at least once.

"Our findings suggest that involuntary childlessness and fertility treatment continue to have financial, emotional and relationship consequences for many people," said Dr Nicola Payne from Middlesex University. "Despite some advances in the availability of funded treatment and psychological support, funding for treatment remains patchy across the UK and this inequity needs to be reduced. There also remains a lack of appropriate, funded psychological support."

Gwenda Burns, chief executive of patient charity Fertility Network UK, said: "Facing fertility problems is distressing enough, without being denied medical help because of where you live: 42% feel suicidal; 90% feel depressed; and 70% experience problems in the relationship with their partner.”

She added: "Patients are often very vulnerable after years of trying to become parents. Fertility struggles and going through fertility treatment can put an enormous strain on both a person's physical and mental health, but also their financial wellbeing when they are having to fund their own treatment."

Because white women accounted for over 90% of respondents to the online survey, the researchers recommend that further studies should focus on the impact of involuntary childlessness on men and people from differing cultural backgrounds.

*Payne N, Seenan S and van den Akker O. Experiences of involuntary childlessness and treatment in the UK: what has changed in 20 years? Human Fertility. Published online: 11 Nov 2019. DOI: 10.1080/14647273.2019.1687946

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