Let’s hear it for the boys: Men’s mental health and infertility
Infertility is a deeply personal experience that often comes with a roller coaster of emotions. Both partners are part of IVF or fertility equation, yet as a society we still tend to consider it a 'woman's issue'.
It's true that the female partner tends to be the one experiencing the brunt of the physical burdens, such as fertility drugs, cycles, and embryo transfers. But when it comes to the emotional side effects of infertility, all is equal. Infertility can be every bit as gruelling and emotionally demanding for both partners, although it might be expressed in different ways.
With 1 in 3 IVF cycles in Australia caused by male-factor infertility, it’s about time we shift the lens to break down the stigma around men’s mental health while trying to conceive. As the exclusive clinic featured on the docuseries Big Miracles, we are proud to have opened our doors to Australian living rooms to follow the brave journeys of eight Australian couples as they undergo fertility treatment.
Tyson Salijevic, featured on the series with his wife Sheila, knows all too well the emotional upheaval that comes with infertility after undergoing multiple treatment cycles together with his wife. Having met and fallen in love later in life, Big Miracles Season 1 follows Sheila and Tyson's journey of trying to conceive – at first by using eggs frozen when Sheila was 38 years old.
Tyson’s candour around the couple’s story, especially his perspective on mental wellbeing, continues to win the hearts of Australia, and his mission is to shift the societal norms around the highly stigmatised topic.
“As men, we face the challenge of finding out we have a low sperm count, not being able to fix something when it doesn't work, getting over the thought we can't conceive naturally which feels less manly,” he says.
“If we have failure in conceiving, then we feel like a failure, and that's hard. Seeing the sadness in your partner is also very challenging, and knowing we can't fix that either.”
While he can’t wave a magic wand and ease the pain that he and Sheila have felt, Tyson’s firm belief in doing what is within his control to reduce stress helps propel him forward. With a background in personal training and motivational speaking, Tyson went into their IVF journey with strategies like meditation, exercise, deep breathing, and swimming to cope with the demands of treatment. But his biggest tip for others in the same position is quite simple – to embrace the vulnerability and talk about it.
“The first thing we need to do for men is to talk about it. Everyone needs to talk about it, the more we keep it inside the harder it becomes,” he says.
“Friends need to understand, families need to talk and not brush it off. They all need to get inquisitive about what we go through,
“But this is a society thing in general, most people don't want to know how hard the process is and how emotional it is.”- Tyson
In fact, a 2020 study ‘Ten to Men: The Australian Longitudinal Study of Male Health’ by the Australian Institute of Family Studies highlighted that of the 80 per cent of males who experienced a mental health condition over the 12-month study period, only 40 per cent would seek help for it.
Queensland Fertility Group Counselling Manager, Fiona McDonald, says that opening up about the challenges men face mentally is the key to normalising mental health support (and feeling worthy of it).
“Men often try to ‘hold it together’ for their partner’s sake during treatment, and often to the detriment of their own mental health,” she says.
“Women will often book the counselling appointment, for example, with a somewhat reluctant partner [reluctant to seek counselling]. Yet once they attend, men find it helpful to learn some coping strategies and have the acknowledgment that their feelings are normal.”- Fiona
“I would also strongly encourage men to have at least one family member, friend, [or] colleague who they confide in whilst they are going through the treatment process, even if they are not big talkers about feelings,” she says.
Tyson implores everyone to watch Big Miracles, whether they are a parent or not, to expand their knowledge about the ins and outs of the trying to conceive journey. With his mission to bring awareness to men’s mental health, he encourages the public to consider both partners when offering support.
“We cannot forget that men want to be parents as much as women do, there is no difference between our goals and desires, but most of the focus is put on the female partner,” he says.
“Men feel the same emotions as women do, they just don't express it as much … we need to be shown that IVF is for both partners, and they [men] need to be shown the same care and compassion that is shown for women.”- Tyson
Fiona says when she asks men what the most difficult part of their journey is, the most common response is “feeling helpless”. She says men often watch their partner experience emotional turmoil as well as the physical burden of fertility treatment and find the lack of control to be able to fix it, “almost unbearable”. Tyson concurred that this was a similar experience going into his own fertility treatment journey.
“I kept saying my one job was to support my partner. I didn't have to do the injections, get the headaches, mood swings or weight gain, I had one job and that was to support my partner,” he says.
Though, he highlights that the heartbreak that comes with fertility struggles are just as valid for the male partners which needs to be more broadly acknowledged.
By shining a light on men's mental health while dealing with infertility we can break the stigma that surrounds male fertility struggles. Creating an inclusive and compassionate environment that encourages open communication, support, and access to mental health resources is vital.
If you’re needing mental and emotional support during this time, please don’t hesitate to contact your clinic and book in with a psychologist or counsellor. Free counselling services are available before, during and after your cycle with each clinic equipped with experienced and highly compassionate mental health professionals. Counselling can be individual or as a couple.