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"Being in college presents its own emotional and mental challenges, and a chronic illness like IBD just adds to it. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help in dealing with all that IBD brings. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your body." - Colette Manley, National Council of College Leaders

Having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can be challenging in more ways than one. Other than the physical manifestations of the disease, Crohn’s and colitis can have a significant impact on a student’s social life, including mental health, body image, and bullying. Stress is also a huge contributing factor to the life of IBD patients. In addition, Crohn’s and colitis patients may have unique challenges in regards to intimacy and relationships.

Relationships and Intimacy

The main concerns a young adult IBD patient may express regarding relationships and intimacy include how and when to disclose their Crohn’s or colitis diagnosis and how much to share. Because the symptoms of IBD can be unpleasant, and unpredictable, some young adults don’t feel comfortable sharing such intimate details

with others.

Specifically, some young adults with IBD may be worried about being able to keep up with an intimate partner because their daily function and activity levels are limited by abdominal pain, fatigue, and/or concerns about not making it to the bathroom in time or needing to use the bathroom multiple times. Others express concerns/challenges with sexual intimacy as it relates to their disease.

Some important things to keep in mind related to intimacy:

  • Have open communication with people you feel safe and comfortable with. It can sometimes be challenging for others to truly understand your experiences with IBD, but if you do not feel respect and support, feel free to move on!
  • Don’t shy away from being who you are! You will meet lots of new people along your journey who will want to get to know you.
  • Speak with a psychologist/counselor about any concerns or help in coping with challenges.
  • Mental health

    When it comes to your health, how you feel physically is only part of the picture. It is important to know that feelings of stress, anxiety and depression are quite normal and you are not alone. You will likely experience these feelings as you learn to manage both college life and your disease. In times where you are having these feelings, you may have an approach to help you cope, such as:

    • Talking to someone you feel comfortable with like a friend, or a family member
    • Meditation
    • Exercise (examples: brisk walk, taking a swim, yoga, or other exercise)
    • Breathing exercises
    • Going out with friends
    • Doing something relaxing, like a reading a book
    • Talking to a psychologist or mental health professional

    Do not ignore these feelings, and be sure to talk to an expert about these mental health symptoms.

    Body image and coping

    IBD patients may often struggle from body image issues. Offhand comments that range from “Wow, you’re so lucky that your IBD makes it easy to lose weight!” to “Have you exercised lately?” can understandably be frustrating. The best thing to do is to keep in mind your limitations: you can’t change your body type or how your IBD affects your illness any more than you can change the color of your eyes. However, you can decide how it affects you mentally. Only you can accept or reject your body. As a Crohn’s or colitis patient, you may not always have full control of your body (for example, you may be losing weight due to your disease, or experience swelling due to steroids, etc.) Despite whatever hurtful or negative comments you may receive, in the end, only your thoughts about your body matter.

    Bullying and Peer Pressure

    Sometimes, Crohn’s or colitis patients may find themselves victims of bullying. Bullying can occur not only at school or extracurricular activities but also online. Keep in mind that your illness is private and specific to you; nothing that anyone can say about your Crohn’s and colitis should change your outlook, because at the end of the day, all that matters is your own self-love and self-acceptance.

    Peer pressure is also something commonly faced at any age and with any peer group. It’s important to be able to recognize peer pressure and realize the difference between positive and negative peer pressure. The effects of complying with certain peer pressure situations may be detrimental to your health as a patient. One way of dealing with negative peer pressure is to educate your peers and friend group about Crohn’s and colitis. Once those around you understand the circumstances surrounding your resistance to go along with the situation at hand, they will hopefully be more sympathetic and understanding. If your peers are not understanding of your choice, then it is best to surround yourself with people that will be supportive of your decisions. It’s also important to learn to say no to negative peer pressure.

    Other helpful resources:

    • The National Council of College Leaders (NCCL) collaborated with Dr. Maggie Stoeckel, Attending Clinical Psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital to discuss mental health and transitions to college. You can find the webinar here.
    • Listen as the NCCL discusses body image and coping. You can find the webinar here.
    • NCCL discusses bullying and peer pressure. You can find the webinar here.
    • NCCL discusses Intimacy with IBD in conjunction with Michele Maddux, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. You can find the webinar here.
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