Women Who Undergo Fertility Treatment Five Times as Likely to Suffer From Depression

A woman’s risk of depression increases following unsuccessful infertility treatments. This unsurprising bit of information is the finding of a 2005 study conducted at the University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. Logically, it would seem to follow that after going through the rigors of in vitro fertilization, a woman would be disappointed, and more prone to depression, if the ordeal did not lead to a bundle of joy. But what if the treatments are successful? Here is the surprise.

Risk of depression greater for women whose fertility treatment was successful

A new study conducted by Camilla Sandal Sejbaek at the University of Copenhagen found that women who give birth following fertility treatments are five times more likely to suffer depression than women who underwent treatments but failed to deliver. Sejbaek’s study looked at the medical records of more than 41,000 women who had fertility treatments between 1994 and 2009. None of the women had previous mental health problems. Researchers found that 552 of these women had been treated for depression after receiving fertility treatments. For 335 women in this group, the fertility treatments were successful; the women had conceived.

It is hard to have a child

Sejbaek admits surprise at the findings, but notes, “We shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is to undergo fertility treatment, but it is also really hard to actually have a child.” Postpartum depression is a well-known phenomenon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 to 19 percent of woman report having postpartum depressive symptoms. The American Psychological Association attributes this to several factors:

  • a decline or fluctuation in reproductive hormones
  • a personal or family history of depression exacerbated by the demands of motherhood
  • stress specific to motherhood, such as concerns about childcare
  • low levels of social support
  • a disparity between the expectations and reality of motherhood
  • and a new mother’s feelings of incompetence when dealing with a “difficult” infant 

Prevention and treatment of postpartum depression

Many women worry, become fatigued and experience periods of unhappiness in the weeks after they have given birth. This is true for both those who conceive naturally and those who conceive with the aid of in vitro fertilization. These “baby blues” are generally not serious and dissipate after the mother has become comfortable with her new role and changed lifestyle.

Postpartum depression is a more serious disorder that may require treatment. Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness or a sense of being overwhelmed are symptoms. Therapy, medication or both are effective treatments. Antidepressant medication is considered safe to use while breastfeeding, although women should consult their doctor about any risks to their infant. Failure to seek treatment can interfere with a mother’s ability to care for her baby, leading to sleeping, eating and behavior problems for the child in the future. 

The takeaway from this study is not only the link between fertility treatment and depression, but also the fact that new mothers are at risk for developing depressive symptoms. Past studies have shown that women who undergo fertility treatment, and fail to conceive, are a higher suicide risk, and practitioners should be aware of this. However, the emotional needs of those who are successful, and deliver the baby they have hoped for, should be considered as well.