Like most married couples, June and Paul were excited to start a family a few years after they were married. However, they found their journey to parenthood was not as smooth as expected. “It was a distressing time, we were trying really hard, but nothing happened” shares June. “The situation became worse when my menses stopped altogether, probably because I was stressed, and I couldn’t even tell when I was ovulating.” Well-meaning relatives and friends added to the pressure with their frequent queries on when the couple intended to have a baby, leaving June feeling wrung-out and depressed. ”I was so relieved when we finally conceived a year later” she says.
When discussing fertility problems, the conversation often centres on causes and treatments, and at times neglects the emotional turmoil that couples go through. Some couples, particularly women, experience depression in their struggle with fertility issues. However, it is often left undiagnosed and untreated as the couple focuses their attention on conceiving, simply hoping that the mounting anxiety and sadness will disappear once they conceive. This can turn into a vicious cycle, as studies have shown that depression in itself can worsen fertility problems.
The World Health Organisation defines depression as a ‘mental disorder resulting in depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration’. In the case of fertility-related depression, the struggle with infertility or fertility treatments can be identified as the cause of the depression. Psychologist Geraldine Tan from the Centre for Effective Living shares that there are several indicators for this type of depression.
Signs of Fertility-Related Depression
One significant characteristic is anxiety, she reveals. “The person often worries about the steps they are taking to conceive, whether they will see any results, and how long the entire baby-making journey will take”.
Low self-esteem is another telling sign. Often the sufferers struggle as they see their peers starting families, and having to contend with questions from others on when it’s ‘their turn’ to have a baby. If the depressed person is the one facing fertility issues, there may even be guilt towards the spouse for not conceiving.
In many instances, sex can become a mechanical act for the affected couple. The rigours of fertility treatments such as regular injections, medication, having to monitor ovulation cycles and body temperature can be stressful in itself, further weighing the person down.
The pressure is immense on both parties. Dr Tan shares, “there is helplessness, as the chance of conception is not guaranteed. There may be well-intended advice from people on how to improve conception, which are seriously unwarranted. Frustrations and tensions mount during the entire period of treatment. And if not expressed appropriately, this anger may be directed to the partner or the people around them”.
Depression is a disorder caused by chemical changes in the body. In some instances where therapy and counselling are insufficient, medication may also be prescribed. Sharing your problems with someone is also an important step in the road to recovery.
If you realise that you are not your usual self, and have been experiencing prolonged bouts of sadness, anxiety and other similar emotions, be open and honest with your spouse about it. Opening up the lines of communication will facilitate mutual understanding and support as you walk through the fertility journey together. Your friends and colleagues may also notice that you are not your usual self. It might be helpful to be honest with them so that they can better relate to you and provide emotional support during this trying period. Having a strong support network of loved ones to stand by you is key to beating depression.
3 Tips from the Expert
If you recognise that depression is setting in, and that the issue of infertility has become all-consuming, Psychologist Geraldine Tan from the Centre for Effective Living suggests the following ways to beat the blues.
Refocus. It can be challenging to tear yourself away from the topic of infertility, especially when you are out in public and face pregnant mothers-to-be and babies in strollers. Remember that focusing on your fertility issues will not help you. Instead, refocus on the other areas of your life where you are experiencing success and fulfilment.
Have a hobby. Pursuing a personal interest has been found to be an extremely effective method of combating depression, as it allows your body to relax – which also helps to increase your chances of conceiving.
Get support. Create a support network for yourself, from those whom you can relate to, or from others experiencing similar struggles. Consider speaking to a therapist or psychologist who can help you work through your depression and overcome it.
I Love Children thanks Dr Geraldine Tan, Psychologist from the Centre for Effective Living, for her valuable input for this article.