Mental Health Impact of STIs linked to Infertility
Infertility is a serious problem that can cause major damage to one’s mental and physical health. It is not strange to have feelings of guilt attached to infertility caused by STDs/STIs, but it’s helpful to let go of those feelings, come to terms with the truth and find ways to live happily and healthy despite it.
In Nigeria, infertility is a big deal, because children are seen as gifts. Most often than not, women are blamed for infertility, and studies have shown that this has negative effects on the mental health of women who cannot get pregnant. The chart below shows the results of a study published in the African Journal of Biomedical Research of mental health disorders in women who suffer from infertility*1.
What are sexually transmitted diseases/infections?
Sexually transmitted diseases or infections aka STD/STI are viruses, bacteria, and parasites that are passed via sexual contact. STDs like gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia are commonplace in Nigeria but can be prevented by using contraceptives like male and female condoms*2.
If left untreated, STIs can cause inflammation and scarring on the fallopian tubes for women, thereby preventing sperm from reaching the egg. In men, the damage is similar; the infection causes inflammation and scarring of the urethra. This often results in a decrease of semen quality*3.
What is Infertility?
Infertility is the inability to conceive or fertilize an egg, after 12 months (a year) of unprotected sex. There are primary and secondary infertility. Primary infertility is when pregnancy has never occurred, while secondary infertility is when a pregnancy has occurred prior to that time. Infertility is caused by many factors, some of which are: genetic defects, abnormal or low semen, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Endometriosis, untreated STDs etc*4.
How does infertility affect one’s mental health?
Inability to conceive or have a child can cause a decline in one’s mental health. The Nigerian society is largely patriarchal and greatly influenced by religion. Infertility is often seen as a women-only problem, and there is a lot of stigma attached to women who cannot conceive or carry a pregnancy to term. They are believed to either have lived promiscuously or are suffering from spiritual problems. All of these erroneous beliefs lead to discrimination and outright abuse that can negatively affect a person’s mental health. It is even worse when the source of infertility is untreated STIs. Women who deal with infertility caused by STIs often feel like they have failed, especially at a “major role in society” – one of which is to be fertile and bear children.
In the case of men, infertility is not often discussed because it is seen as taboo, and many men are too ashamed to talk about it*5.
Outside of societal pressure and behaviour, to want something and not be able to attain it despite several attempts can be heartbreaking. It can cause stress, anger, resentment, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues. Studies have shown that women with infertility (and their partners *7) are more prone to developing anxiety and depression*6.
Infertility can also result in issues like verbal, physical and psychological abuse, divorce, societal ridicule*8.
It is a very tough situation for everyone involved, so it is important that mental health and not just physical health is examined and prioritized.
4 ways to improve one’s mental health despite infertility
People usually discover they are infertile when they are in loving or long-term relationships and wish to have children. Due to the massive toll infertility can cause on the mental health of both individuals and their relationship, it is important to ensure that one’s mental health is in a good state. Here are ways to do that:
● Seek professional help. It’s advised for couples going through infertility to seek counseling from professionals*9.
● Talk about it. Outside of speaking with a trusted counselor, talking about your feelings is another way to improve your mental health when dealing with infertility. It is important to be honest and acknowledge your feelings, talk honestly and openly with your partner.
● Find healthy outlets for your feelings; take up new habits, join support groups. These would help in creating avenues for happiness during the hard times. It’s important to not feel guilty for having an STI that caused infertility, rather, understand and adapt to changes in your lifestyle as a result of it. These changes may include prescription medication and suppressive therapy.
● Prioritize your mental and physical wellbeing, and be open to other options for having children, like surrogacy or adoption. To be able to have a child and raise it properly, you have to be your best self, so invest in that and take good care of yourself.
Infertility is a serious problem that can cause major damage to one’s mental and physical health. It is not strange to have feelings of guilt attached to infertility caused by STDs/STIs, but it’s helpful to let go of those feelings, come to terms with the truth and find ways to live happily and healthy despite it. Seek the help of a professional mental health practitioner, and open yourself to healing.
What is an STD/STI?
STDs/STIs stands for sexually transmitted diseases/infections. They are viruses, bacteria and parasites that are spread through sexual contact. In the case of an infection, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics, and/or other treatments depending on the STI.
What is infertility?
Infertility is the inability to conceive or fertilize an egg, after 12 months (a year) of unprotected sex.
Can STDs cause infertility?
Yes, if untreated, STDs like gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia can cause infertility. The time varies; some take only a few weeks while others can take months to cause damage. To prevent the spread of these infections, always use protection during sex, stick to only one partner and get tested regularly.
How does infertility affect a person’s mental health?
Infertility can negatively impact a person’s mental health. There are many emotions like anger, guilt, pain, resentment and regret to deal with when it is caused by an STD. It can also lead to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
How can a person improve their mental health despite infertility?
There are many ways to stay mentally healthy despite the serious issue of infertility. Seeking counsel, acknowledging and working through your feelings, couple’s therapy, joining support groups are some of the ways to stay positive and healthy during such a difficult problem.
*1 Sulyman, D., Ayanda, K. A., Aminu, B. M., & Dattijo, L. M. (2019, October 27). Anxiety and depressive disorders among infertile women attending clinic in a Nigeria teaching hospital. African Journal of Biomedical Research.
*2 The most common STIs in Nigeria. Bridge Clinic.
*3 Elizabeth Boskey, P. D. Learn how some STIs may cause infertility if left untreated. Verywell Health.
*4 NHS. NHS choices.
*5 Akinloye, O., & Truter, E. J. (2011). A review of management of infertility in Nigeria: Framing the ethics of a national health policy. International journal of women’s health.
*6 O, A., & EJ, T. (2011, August 1). Directory of open access journals. International Journal of Women’s Health.
*7 GK; F. F. O. E. B. A. O. A. T. F. Psychological profile of spouses of women with infertility in Nigeria. African journal of medicine and medical sciences.
*8The psychological trauma of infertility in Nigeria.
*9 Counseling often a wise idea for infertile couples. Infertility Docs. (2019, April 27).