The mental health burden of IBD and coping through community and therapy

When you live with chronic illness, you experience a wide range of emotions and personal experiences that shape you. Life can feel like an uncertain rollercoaster ride, you never know when the next twist or turn is going to happen. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, 21-year-old Parsa Iranmahboub, candidly shares the mental health burden that IBD brings upon a patient. Diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was only eight years old, Parsa shares the perspective of what it’s like to be a pediatric patient who has grown into adulthood. He’s currently a student at UCLA and the Education Chair for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Students.

Parsa explains the psychosocial component of life with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by breaking it down to anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness. He recently spoke about this at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress as well as on IBD Patient Insider and his powerful words resonated with me and I know they will with you, too. Here’s Parsa’s breakdown of the IBD patient experience:

Anxiety: Being a bathroom disease, there is often the anxiety of whether a patient has easy accessibility to a restroom when they are out. But there can also be anxiety related to a patient’s diet. When I was younger, I was placed on a low sodium diet due to one of my medications. If I wanted to eat out with family or friends, there would be this anxiety of whether I could even eat anything from the restaurant. There’s also the anxiety that stems from extra-intestinal manifestations. I have a history of developing fistulas. And during my sophomore year of college, my labs were not looking too good, I was flaring a little bit, and I began to worry if this meant I would develop another fistula. I began to wonder how I would deal with a fistula as a college student. How would another flare up affect my grades and my ability to get my work done? I lived in a communal style dorm, so how would a sitz bath even work? Essentially, with anxiety there can be this fear of the disease taking over my life and how can I constantly accommodate it.

Embarrassment: Embarrassment can arise in numerous forms. For one, there’s the poo taboo. But there can also be embarrassment from when you are flaring. From when you are losing weight, when you no longer look healthy, when you now look “sick.” There are the side effects from medications. From when you begin to gain weight, develop acne, and now have that dreaded moon face. Let’s not forget the impact of extra-intestinal manifestations. In 6th grade, I had surgery for a perianal fistula. After the surgery, I had to wear tighty whities with a maxi pad to help absorb the pus. It would be an understatement to describe how much I began to despise physical education. Not because I had to exercise and run around. No, I was always too active of a kid to hate PE. But because we had to change into our uniforms during the beginning of class. And I was embarrassed to be in the locker room. I was embarrassed that everyone else would look cool with their boxers, but here I was with my tighty whities and a maxi pad. And it might sound ridiculous, almost like a scene taken from the “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”, but to my sixth-grade self, looking cool and being like everyone else mattered.

Guilt: There is often the guilt of feeling like a burden for others. That others have to not only be flexible with you but that they need to make accommodations because of you. “Oh, you all want to go hiking, well I can’t because there’s no accessible bathroom.” “Oh, you all want to eat at this place, actually can we go somewhere else where I can better tolerate the food?” There can even be instances where you feel guilt for believing that you no longer are a good friend. That since you have to refuse to hang out with friends because of fatigue or pain, your friends probably think you simply don’t enjoy hanging out with them. But there can also be guilt from a non-compliant label. When I was younger, I would receive weekly injections. Soon, I began to throw up after every injection. My doctor switched me to the pill version, but it would still make me feel incredibly nauseous. So much so, that I would refuse to touch the pills. Instead, I would take the pill container, open the lid, slowly pour the pills into the lid, pour too many, attempt to pour the extra pills from the lid back to the container, and once again pour too many pills back. It was a whole process. But I simply refused to touch the pills.

Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually I became non-compliant. Consequently, I switched medications and soon developed acute pancreatitis. At the onset of my symptoms, I was out of the house and had to call my dad to pick me up because I was continuing to throw up blood. And in the car, I told him “Dad, I think I’m going to die.” Thankfully, it was an over exaggeration. But at that moment, it wasn’t.

Parsa with his parents.

Now that I reflect on the moment, not only do I feel guilty for putting myself through that situation, but for also putting my family through that. I can’t imagine being a father and hearing your son tell you those words. And all of this happened because I couldn’t get myself to take those stupid pills. So, not only was I labeled as a non-compliant patient, a patient who was too immature to take his medications, but I was now also a patient who had “hurt” his family.

Loneliness: IBD is an invisible disease. You might look at a person and not realize they are living with a chronic illness. The invisibility is both the disease’s blessing and curse. There have been so many instances where I’ve been happy to have the ability to put on a mask and pretend that everything is okay. That my friends and peers do not have to associate me with a “disease,” a connotation that I despise so much that I often introduce my chronic illness as Crohn’s and not Crohn’s disease. However, because of the invisibility, the disease can feel extremely isolating. You might not know anyone else who can relate to your experiences/feelings. In fact, despite being diagnosed at a young age, for almost a decade I refused to share my story with friends and those close to me. It wasn’t until I met an IBD patient for the first time who was my age that I began to realize the importance of a shared community.

Dr. Tiffany Taft , PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke alongside Parsa during that Crohn’s and Colitis panel about Mental Health as it relates to IBD. As a Crohn’s patient of 19 years herself, she offers a unique perspective for her patients. I asked her when an IBD patient expresses these feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness how she helps people deal with the struggles.

“The first thing I do is simply listen and reflect to the person my understanding without advice or judgement. It’s important to let someone tell their story before interjecting with any sort of interpretation or the like. Then, I start with some education about how our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave. And that these thoughts are often on autopilot or may feel like they’re on an infinite loop and impossible to turn off,” explained Dr. Taft. “My goal is to help the patient understand their thinking and learn to slow it down and take a step back from their thoughts to be able to evaluate them, and maybe either change them or not let them have as much power.”

She went on to say that from there her and her patients tie their thoughts into other symptoms like anxiety, shame, or guilt, to see patterns and opportunities for change.

“It’s not an easy process, but most people can succeed. Loneliness has been harder during the pandemic. Social distancing has created a lot of isolation without an easy solution. I encourage staying connected via video chat, texting, and social media (so long as it’s not stressful!) People say that online interactions aren’t as fulfilling, and that’s probably true. But if I shift my thoughts from this negative lens to a more positive perspective, then it can help offset some of that loneliness until we can all be together again.”

The Decision to Open Up

It takes time and patience for many of us to come to terms with our diagnosis and decide how we want to present our experience to the world. For both Parsa and me, it took us a decade to take off our proverbial masks and share our reality with those around us. Parsa says he decided to share his patient journey at the end of freshman year of college after he joined a research lab at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. He met someone for the first time who was his age and had IBD.

“When I was talking with her, this sort of light bulb just sparked. I realized I could connect with this person in a way I couldn’t have connected with anyone else before. She truly understood the challenges I was facing or had faced. Not from a scientific or “oh, I see” perspective, but from a “oh, I know cause you’re not alone” perspective. This connection was essentially my first exposure to the IBD community, and slowly, I began to become more involved in the community.”

The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community

Parsa went from forming his first spin4 team to joining the National Council of College Leaders to becoming more involved with his local chapter in California. He then started a local support network for college students on the UCLA campus. His advice for patients and caregivers—find a support network within the IBD community.

Foundation of National Council of College Leaders (NCCL)—this group of college students from across the United States volunteers with the Foundation to provide a distinct voice for young adults with IBD. Members also connect on how IBD affects them as students, athletes, and partners in a relationship, the intersectionality that stems from a patient’s identity, and tips for having an ostomy bag, reducing stress through coping mechanisms, and applying for accommodations at school.

Parsa also co-founded IBDetermined at UCLA, a student organization geared towards providing a support network and advocacy-centered space for UCLA students with IBD.

“Even though there are some amazing national and local support groups, we noticed that there was a gap for local resources that focused specifically on the intersection between being a college student and an IBD patient. Hence, we wanted to create that more local space, where individuals could address their specific questions/concerns/thoughts relating to being an IBD college student at UCLA. It’s a space where our members can learn about accommodations that are available through our university’s Center for Accessible Education, can exchange tips and advice for navigating schoolwork and college life with IBD, can express their frustrations about the disease or the lack of university resources, and can share where the best and cleanest bathrooms are located on campus.”

Parsa says growing up with Crohn’s made him responsible at a young age. He learned about resilience. He learned to embrace the obstacles he has hurdled and to keep on pushing through even when he couldn’t immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel. Parsa says he learned to appreciate the time he felt healthy enough to live life not controlled by a chronic illness. Through the years he’s realized you can still be fortunate through a misfortune. This belief has given him a strong appreciation to make the most of the opportunities that come his way and refuse to take the easy way out.

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