Chronic illness and mental health

I talk a lot about mental health on this blog. At the end of most of my posts regarding our fragile psyches I ask people to come to me if they need to talk or if they want me to write about a certain subject. Someone answered that call and that is why I am writing today about chronic illness and mental health.

I am an extremely lucky individual in that my health is in relatively good shape. I get the odd cold here and there but I am rarely sick. I don’t suffer from any lasting pain anywhere and while I mentally prepare myself to get out of bed each morning it is because I am trying to psyche myself up for work; not because I physically can’t get up.
An old friend of mine suffers from Crohns and Colitis. She has undergone several operations to remove parts of her digestive system to help her cope with the illness. After the birth of her baby boy last year she has suffered a flare up of chronic pain. Of course, with that pain comes a whole myriad of other problems.

Crohn’s disease is the inflammation of the lining of the digestive system. Over time it can damage sections of the system. Symptoms include but are not limited to diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fatigue. The disease is associated with the modern Western lifestyle. Doctors do not know exactly what causes Crohn’s but it was rare before WWII and more common afterwards. It is not so common in Africa and poorer continents. It is most likely caused by genetics.
About 80% of people who suffer from Crohn’s will need surgery in their lifetime.
If that wasn’t enough, Crohn’s sufferers are told by the HSE to avoid milk, alcohol, dairy products, spicy foods, fatty foods and high fibre foods. Delightful!

I corresponded with Laura from the Irish Society for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. I had spoken to my friend about her experience with her mental health following the birth of her child and the flare up in her condition. I wanted to get a professional’s perspective also.
She gave me a lot of valuable insight into the emotional side of a diagnosis and of a life with a chronic illness.

There are of course recognised symptoms of anxiety, depression and mood swings when it comes to living with a chronic illness. Unfortunately, these can also be side effects of medications used to treat these illnesses. People may have to change their whole lifestyle around. They may have to change jobs or give up work altogether. Depending on the illness, there may be some body image issues to tack onto your already wounded mind.

People with Crohn’s and Colitis may also suffer in their relationships. Some may feel like a burden with the care needed if they are in pain and do not want to bring their partner down with their low moods. No matter the protests from partner, family and friends alike, our minds can sometimes rule us in the wrong direction.

Something that I suffer from myself is anxiety. Reading about this topic has opened my eyes to how bad it can really be. I am not dismissing my own experiences but merely highlighting the fact that while also dealing with their illness, people with Crohn’s and Colitis also have the added pleasure of being anxious about travelling anywhere outside the house, never mind a holiday!
Every destination they are going to is a potential minefield of disaster. Is there a toilet nearby? Is there a toilet that I can use due to Covid restrictions? Can I attend my friend’s birthday party? The pub she is going to is miles from anywhere and the toilets are small. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going there. Can I go to the match next Friday? The local pitch has no bathrooms whatsoever and it is a good walk from home.

These are some vague scenarios that will play out in a person’s head. Unfortunately, if they do have an accident due to lack of facilities, they might shy away from that activity for a long time, isolating themselves.

The only experience I have had that comes close to chronic pain was with my teeth. I recently got the tooth pulled after months of pain and self-medication (mouthwash and pain-killers, don’t worry!) and the relief has been instantaneous. People who suffer from Crohn’s Colitis and any chronic illness do not have that luxury. They have to live with that pain for the rest of their lives. They may have some good days and brief respite from the illness that has defined their lives but it will always come back again.

I know this is something different than what I usually write. I usually stick to what I know so that I don’t talk muck! But after reconnecting with an old friend and hearing her story I felt that I had to bring awareness to something that affects more people than we know. As I said earlier, I am not dismissing my own problems and I am not asking you to dismiss yours. What I am asking people to do is to educate yourself on chronic illness.

One way you can do this is by listening to Gutcast! The ISCC has their very own podcast. They released eight episodes talking about all the different aspects of living with Crohn’s and Colitis. They cover everything from coping with Crohn’s during Covid-19 to dealing with sex and relationships while living with the illness. Amy Kelly presented the podcast and it is a very informative tool to educate yourself about Crohn’s. If you suffer from the disease then it could be something you are interested in!

So why not read more about these debilitating diseases. Everybody is fighting their own battle. We can help them by being informed and alert to their needs. We can be there for them in our own way.

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