Facing a global health crisis over the past two years has changed our lives, both individually and collectively, in a myriad of ways. Our jobs, our relationships, our physical and mental health, and our resilience have all been put to the test.
Those undergoing fertility treatments during this time have been uniquely impacted. Struggling with infertility is an incredibly tough situation, which has been made even more challenging due to the spread of the virus and subsequent restrictions.
Dr. Prati A Sharma, a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist in Toronto, says that in the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, there was a pause in new IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), IUI (Intrauterine Insemination), and FET (Frozen Embryo Transfer) treatments. While clinics are mostly open now, the passing of time has been a major stressor on those dealing with travel restrictions, as well as those in need of surgery prior to treatment. This is especially true for women at an advanced reproductive age.
Mitigating protocols like limited capacity in clinics, social distancing, screening, staggered starts, and vaccination policies have allowed for reopening, and things do seem to be getting better, says Dr. Sharma. But time is precious, and the anxiety of so many changes amid a certain stagnation can definitely take a toll on one’s mental health.
Chloe, from New Brunswick, has been trying with her husband to get pregnant since the fall of 2017. After over a year waiting to get into an OBGYN, they were referred to the only fertility clinic in their province. They were able to try IUI once before COVID hit, then moved on to IVF and FET.
Wait times were physically and mentally exhausting. A particularly difficult appointment cancellation (due to the province entering their “Red Phase” restriction level) was the most heartbreaking. “I had spent three months preparing my body and mind for an egg retrieval, and was so blindsided,” she says.
COVID has been a very alienating experience—we have all had to find new ways of connecting. When going through fertility treatments, you can feel even more isolated. Because of this, Chloe has found the appointments themselves to be stressful. They often come with difficult news, and she is not allowed to have her husband by her side in the clinic room.
Ariel Taylor, a registered social worker and fertility therapist, says that while the ongoing pandemic has certainly contributed to a mental health crisis, particularly among those who are struggling to become pregnant, there are several strategies one can use to help along the journey.
These include, 1) Reaching out to a therapist, whether in person or virtually, 2) Building a “coping toolbox”—using breathwork, mindfulness, mood tracking, etc., 3) Practicing self-care by getting enough food to eat and water to drink, and 4) Making time for yourself to be at peace and relax.
As a yoga teacher, Chloe can attest to the power of meditation in her hardest moments. “I have gone through so many different stages of grief with this, from feeling like I need to help, speak out, and educate, to feelings of helplessness and embarrassment…You get stuck in this cycle of hope and despair, and it can be hard to move away from that feedback loop.”
She says setting boundaries has been key, as well as making time for therapy, recognizing her limits, and finding others who are going through similar struggles.
For those of us on the outside giving support, Taylor recommends being present and listening rather than trying to fix or control the situation. On a more systemic, collective level, she says education can go a long way toward reducing stigma and making people feel less alone and more supported.
Additionally, she says “we can support the fertility community by advocating for more inclusive insurance coverage, ensuring employees can take time off for treatments, and making sure fertility treatments are accessible and affordable.”
Considering approximately 1 in 6 Canadians struggling with infertility, we all have a certain duty to make this arduous process easier on our loved ones, especially in such a tragically difficult time. As the proverb goes, it takes a village. In this case, not only to raise a child, but to bring one into the world.