Integrating concern for mental health, along with attention to the root causes, is a point of emphasis for those who are hoping — and waiting — to have a baby.
“It’s about focusing on the whole person,” said Tiffany Von Wald, M.D., who specializes in Fertility and Reproductive Medicine at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “There is a mind-body connection that is a super-important piece of the fertility journey.
Susan Wicks, a Sanford Health therapist, knows firsthand the struggles that surround challenges when trying to conceive.
Based on her own personal experience, she can verify it can be difficult to cope. Effective care can go well beyond seeking physiological answers to questions about fertility.
“It’s a unique situation,” she said. “I really look forward to being able to talk to women and help them build coping strategies, even in really difficult situations.”
Help is down the hall
As part of that effort, Wicks now has an office down the hall from Sanford doctors who provide fertility care. She serves a vital role within a Sanford Health Fertility and Reproductive Medicine program that offers services, support and resources at every phase of starting a family.
“For people who are dealing with fertility challenges, it’s a very tough issue,” Wicks said. “There can be a lot of shame and anxiety that comes in. There is a lot of self-blame and isolation that can come along with that.”
Providers like Dr. Von Wald have long understood that not being able to have a child right away can include emotional stress. Appropriate behavioral health attention can help lighten the burden.
“The prevalence of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are very high among patients undergoing fertility treatment,” Dr. Von Wald said. “Counseling can be very effective in lowering stress and anxiety levels. It can help patients learn coping mechanisms and strategies to support them emotionally when they go through fertility treatment.”
That is where the partnership with Wicks comes in. As an integrated part of Sanford Women’s and the fertility services team, she can offer a comforting and convenient option for patients.
“It makes it easier for women to accept the help,” Wicks said. “They can be directed just down the hall to talk to me. My nurse can schedule an appointment.”
Mental health needs are common
It is common for those dealing with infertility to assume they’re to blame for the problems. This feeling can persist even with assurances from providers that it is not their fault.
“They feel like something in them is broken,” Wicks said. “They’re thinking if they just were healthier, if they could just relax, or ate better, this problem would go away.”
So Wicks works with them. It’s OK to be sad about this, she tells them. It’s OK to be angry.
“We can assure them that they’re doing nothing wrong,” Wicks said. “Sometimes we don’t know what is causing the problems with fertility and we tell them that. Hearing those words can bring all kinds of relief.”
Coping strategies most often involve talking about emotions with trusted people. Those dealing with fertility challenges may be reluctant to share much with others about their ongoing concerns.
“It’s vital to find support people you can call when you’re angry or sad,” Wicks said. “You need people who can be there for you. You can also try to engage in activities that have nothing to do with making babies. You don’t have to make your whole world about getting pregnant.”
There are studies suggesting anxiety levels can affect the likelihood of successful treatments, Dr. Von Wald said. With that, it’s important to establish a sense of well-being during the process with an integrative care approach. What is good for the mind, in this case, can also be good for the body.
“With fertility, it’s important to support the whole person,” Dr. Von Wald said. “Emotional health can really impact the outcome.”
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