A Canadian study that tracked more than 57,000 women has found patients with complications after pelvic mesh implants are at increased risk of depression, self-harm – even suicide.

The study published in the journal JAMA tracked more than 57,000 women in Ontario who had complications like pain and infections after receiving the polypropylene implants used to treat incontinence. The study found that:

  • Of those referred for mesh removal surgery, 11 per cent were treated for depression
  • Meanwhile, 2.7 per cent suffered from self-harm/suicidal behavior, almost double the rate in the control group

Dr. Blayne Welk, senior author of the study and assistant professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine, says doctors need to recognize this complication and help women who are suffering with counselling, medications and, where possible, mesh removal.

Dr. Welk says the study shows that “these complications are severe and do cause a lot of emotional distress for patients.”

“There is a real risk of psychiatric illnesses that go along with these complications,” Dr. Welk added.

‘Women are not believed’

The plastic implants are still widely used to help women suffering from incontinence, with doctors reporting good success rates and low rates of complications.

But CTV News has spoken to dozens of women who say the implants triggered severe pain, infections and in some cases punctured tissue in the bladder, colon or vagina. There have been various lawsuits across the country.

In some cases, doctors blamed the womens’ distress and pain on psychological problems rather than complications from the mesh.

Nonie Wideman, who had pelvic mesh removed after the pain left her suicidal, said the research validates “that women are suffering not only physically but mentally.”

Wideman now runs online support groups for women suffering from mesh-related pain. She says depression is a common complication.

Women are often “not believed about how mesh is causing them pain or how much pain the mesh is causing them,” according to Wideman.

“We do kind of suicide watches when women start talking like they’re done, they’re finished, they can’t go on anymore,” she said from Montney, B.C.

Wideman said she is aware of one suicide in the United States as a result of mesh.

There has also been a suicide reported in Australia, where some pelvic mesh implants are now banned.

“This study validates that women are going through horrendous emotional trauma over the mesh,” Wideman said.

One woman from B.C., who asked not to be identified, told CTV News that she has been in agony for many months and has been unable to find a doctor willing to remove her implant. She said she has “filled out paperwork for assisted dying due to the agonizing pain of mesh and the fact that I have no medical care regarding mesh.”

‘It really gets you down’

Lila Windley, who had pelvic mesh implanted for incontinence in 2011, says her pain has become so unbearable that she can barely walk.

“Every time I walk, it is poking,” she said from Courtenay, B.C.

“The pain has been incredible,” she added. “I spent five weeks on the floor, going from the floor to the bed, screaming in pain, crying.”

Windley says depression has become part of her reality. She has been seeking surgery for three years, but still doesn’t have one scheduled.

“I phone every month to see when my surgery date is going to be and then I cry and cry and cry because they can’t tell me,” she said. “The first time I saw the specialist was three years ago this month, I believe and still no surgery date. And every day I get up hoping they are going to phone.”

At first, doctors dismissed her altogether, adding to her intense suffering, she said.

“That’s a huge problem when the physicians are not believing you and you have to go to research on your own and you know you are not crazy, but they make you feel like you are crazy,” she added.

“There’s days I lay on the couch all day because I can’t go out and do things I used to,” she went on. “It really gets you down.”

Windley said she was encouraged by the new study. “We need this (type of research) to happen so that other people are aware of how depressed we get,” she said. “So many of us are hurt by the mesh.”

Canada and the U.S. are reviewing the use of some pelvic mesh products. Some European Agencies say they should be used only as a last resort.