How the wellness industry is financially and emotionally exploiting women struggling with fertility

With infertility affecting 3.5 million people in the UK, leading patient charity Fertility Network UK offers support and guidance during this uncertain and acutely difficult time.

Head of Operations, Gwenda Burns, explains: “Patients are often very vulnerable after years of trying to become parents. Fertility struggles and going through fertility treatment can put an enormous strain on both a person’s physical and mental health, but also their financial wellbeing when they are having to fund their own treatment.”

In a world full of wellness trends and lifestyle fads, you don’t have to look very far for ‘experts’ making huge promises. From skin conditions to gut issues, insomnia and more, so-called healing practices often target those in a desperate situation seeking answers. And women or couples facing fertility issues, in particular; are hugely vulnerable to such financial and emotional exploitation.

In fact, a survey the charity conducted in 2016 found that 90% of respondents reported being depressed due to their fertility problems, as well as shockingly, 42% who admitted feeling suicidal.

Fertility support blogger and women’s health advocate Becky, AKA DefiningMum, shares her experience, explaining: “Through the blog I tell my story of how at the age of 28 I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure. My hormone levels were that of someone double my age, with a very low egg reserve and menopause on the horizon.

“Being told I may not be able to have children devastated me, taking away all of my ability to think rationally and changing me into a desperate and vulnerable target for anything that slightly suggested it might help me conceive. Being rushed straight to IVF with costs starting at several thousands of pounds, I’d look at ‘alternative’ treatments as ways of ensuring success, feeling I’d tried everything in my power (even though it was actually all out of my control).

If it didn’t work then the ‘what ifs’ would creep in – “what if I’d tried x, y, z…maybe then it would have worked?!” At the end of the day – what was an extra couple of hundred pounds in the grand scheme of things when we’d already paid over £5000? This was just our first treatment, after five IVF cycles we’d already spent over £20k, not counting the alternative treatments. It was impossible to limit myself – I wanted a baby at whatever cost.”

Alongside items on a wellness menu, fertility patients are also confronted with the mind-boggling option of IVF clinic add-ons, such as pre-implantation genetic screening, and other drug treatments in order to help with immunity. A widespread issue, awareness covering how damaging this can be is finally being raised.

Sadly far from uncommon, Becky’s story highlights the importance of her own ongoing work to support others encountering fertility struggles, and Gwenda says, “Patients are often very vulnerable after years trying to become parents: that’s why it is crucial for fertility clinics to behave ethically and not offer false hope or upsell treatment add-ons.”

Gwenda highlights: “Fertility clinics must be transparent about both what is known about the efficacy of any add-ons offered and their cost. It is only when patients are fully informed about the status and any risks of the add-ons, plus their cost, that they can decide if this is something they are prepared to try.”

Becky looks back, remembering: “My first experience was with a reflexologist, whose card was given to me by a nurse in my early stages of diagnosis. She called herself “The Baby Maker”, claiming to have helped hundreds of women in my position conceive, all through effectively rubbing their feet. My husband’s reaction was probably that of all logical partners, thinking it was ludicrous and trying to control my desperation, but there was no stopping me.

“I took leave from work to travel over an hour each way to see this ‘miracle lady’ who was going to solve all of my problems. Her living room/waiting room was filled with clippings of magazine articles with people claiming their miraculous conception was all down to her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was unable to solve my medical issue and after several months and a few hundred pounds later I moved onto the next ‘wonder treatment’ – acupuncture. Something which many find relaxing, a release, but for me an uncomfortable way to spend an hour, making small talk…just another £40 an hour for the pleasure. My acupuncturist then led me to an herbalist, a lady I met in a pub for an initial chat before handing over more money to drink what can only be described as foul swamp water – another £60 well spent. I’d hate to count up the amount I spent on these unscientific ‘cures’ – it’s now that I’m telling my story as a mum of 3 (all thanks to science and some donated eggs) that I look back at my former self and realise just how all-consumed and utterly vulnerable I was.”

But what about the work of accredited health and wellbeing experts, whose aim is not to offer false promises but to assist patients on a more general, holistic level? Becky admits: “Despite all of this, I believe there can be a place for these ‘alternative’ treatments, but only when facts are given about what they can actually do. I found a reflexologist later in my treatment who didn’t claim to be able to ‘get me pregnant’, instead she was honest about how she could support me through my journey.”

Nutrition health coach and life stylist, Hayley Ray, who has spoken in the media about her own endometriosis battle, says, “It’s so important for couples who are exploring other avenues of alternative and holistic therapies that they’re connecting with credited and certified practitioners. It breaks my heart on the number of couples who are exploited during this process. Anyone claiming to have a ‘miracle’ cure without the right credentials is leaving couples vulnerable and in debt.”

Hayley emphasises: “Seeking out holistic treatments should be a positive experience- we’re all bio individual and what may work for one couple, might not necessary work for another. I would suggest couples look into the certification, testimonials, and even speaking with past clients before working with a holistic practitioner.”

The desperate struggles to conceive can be fraught with uncertainty, further exacerbated by false unproven claims being targeted towards incredibly vulnerable women. Which is what makes seeking out the right support so crucial.

And as Becky finishes: “When it comes to decision making during fertility treatment, it’s incredibly difficult to stay balanced, objective and logical.”

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