Counselling and emotional support during fertility treatment

How can people best deal with the emotional strain of fertility treatment?
23 July 2018

Interview with 

Jackie Stewart - independent counsellor, Bourn Hall


The process of fertility treatment is an emotional, financial and physical rollercoaster. Katie Haylor spoke to Jackie Stewart - an independent counsellor who supports patients going through IVF at Bourn Hall...

Jackie - I think it’s important to include any form of counselling for people’s psychological and emotional journey. So there are two types of counselling really: implications counselling is for anybody undergoing donor treatment or surrogacy, and then there’s support counselling or therapeutic counselling which involves supporting a person’s feelings through this journey.

Katie - Can you give me an idea of some of the emotional problems someone might experience having fertility treatment?

Jackie - Not everybody experiences what I’m going to tell you, especially if it works first time. Having said that, if they come back for more treatment and it doesn’t work they can start to experience some of the effects.

They may start to experience the effects of something that is likened to a grieving process because there is a feeling of a sense of loss. The further down the line that you get with treatments not working, the harder the impact, higher the anxiety, the stress levels will start to come up.

Katie - Of course, no-one has fertility treatment in isolation from the rest of their life. You’re still going on doing your day-to-day things. You might have a job, you might have caring responsibilities. Can the stress of fertility treatment trickle into other aspects of your life and how do you deal with that?

Jackie - It can be overwhelming; it affects every part of your life. The longer you’re in it, the harder it gets. Stress and infertility can’t be separated so it affects working capacity. Sometimes people keep it to themselves completely; they have little or no support. Other times, companies are very good and they do share it with family and friends but it’s a very individual thing. It’s hard to talk about because it’s a private matter and so just understanding and acknowledging people’s feelings can really help.

And often, men and women cope differently. I’m generalising, of course, but when you’ve got two different coping mechanisms in a partnership, that can sometimes isolate people from each other. So it’s helpful to come and talk to a councillor or talk to other people through a support group and to understand that your feelings are very normal. The point of counselling really is to support your feelings, help you to find ways through the treatment, help you to cope better so that you feel less overwhelmed.

So there are coping strategies, there are lots of websites and networks, books, support group. There are ways of helping a person to feel less alone with this and that’s the whole point really, and to feel reassured that there’s a way through it.

Katie - Can you tell me a bit more about implications counselling?

Jackie - For the majority of people there is a gap between having your own biological child and moving on to using donor gametes. They may need just a short space at least to consider the implications of that and what that means to them. How will the partner feel about that? When would they tell their child? How will they tell their child? How will they support their child if the child wants to find out more about the donor? All the legalities of that. There are so many implications.

Katie - Obviously, the best case scenario is to end up with a successful pregnancy and a healthy baby or multiple babies. That doesn’t happen for everyone. How do you come to terms with that?

Jackie - If you’re trying to decide to end treatment, that’s one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever make, so it’s really important that you reach out for some support. And it could be that you decide to move on to another form of parenting, which is absolutely wonderful and there’s lots of support there. But for those people that have been through this process, and maybe it’s been an arduous time for them, they need more support and lots of understanding.

This is a stressful situation that you’re going through so what I would say is to not be too hard on yourself and be compassionate to yourself. You are a patient, and what would you be saying to say a best friend if they were going through this? That it might have been a long held dream so to just give yourself permission to do or not do things, you know? There are people around you that actually are really waiting to help but they just don’t know how to, so if you can just be clear with what you might need from people and then communicate that.

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