The prevalence of mental health struggles in the IBD community

Mental health often takes a major hit when you’re diagnosed and live with a chronic illness like IBD. I ran a poll on Instagram and Twitter this past week and the results were extremely eye-opening. Not only for the patient community, but for any caregivers, friends, or family who know people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

On Instagram—out of 350 people polled over 24 hours, a resounding 93% responded “yes” to IBD impacting their mental health and causing depression and anxiety. On Twitter, I ran the same poll for 48 hours, of the more than 205 votes, 86% of people responded “yes”.

Dr. Yezaz Ghouri, MD, Director of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Services, University of Missouri School of Medicine at Columbia, offered helpful insight on the topic. I had the pleasure of meeting “Dr. ZaZ” (as he commonly goes by) in person at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Mid-America Chapter Gala in November. Dr. ZaZ was awarded the 2022 Catalyst for Mission Advancement award and I was so inspired and intrigued by his work as I was emceeing the event, that I knew we would have to collaborate on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s! We made it happen.

Here’s my interview with Dr. ZaZ about how our IBD can impact our mental health.

NH: “During the first day of the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress 2023 conference it was shared that rates of anxiety and depression are about twice as high in the IBD community compared to the general population–why is that?”

Dr. ZaZ: “The exact cause of IBD is not known. There are some common theories that have been suggested, these include genetic factors, changes in gut microbiome, alteration in immune function of the body, and effect of certain environmental factors. Interestingly, some of these factors have also shown to be associated with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. The gut-brain axis is a nervous system-based pathway that connects the nerve cells from the brain to the gut. This gut-brain axis has been found to play a role in the release of nerve cell chemicals (or neurotransmitters) in the intestines. One such neurotransmitter is Serotonin, which has a well-established role in several psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Studies have pointed out an alteration in serotonin activity in the intestines of patients with IBD 1.

The gut microbiome comprises of trillions of species of organisms mainly consisting of bacteria. The healthy gut-microbiome is altered in individuals with several conditions like anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, Autism, etc. This alteration is also seen in IBD and has been a subject of active research to better understand the various changes in the bacteria of the gut. Some of these bacteria produce chemicals that can serve as neurotransmitters in the gut. It is unclear if these chemicals could influence the gut-brain axis and contribute towards the occurrence of mental disorders. Last year we published a study that showed this association of increased prevalence of anxiety and depression among IBD patients 2. The added burden and distress was not just limited to IBD patients, the study also showed an overall increased healthcare cost and burden to hospital systems. It is in the best socio-economic interest of the government and the public to address mental health issues in society, especially among those with chronic illnesses like IBD.”

NH:How can patients best articulate their concerns and communicate with their doctor about their mental health?”

Dr. ZaZ: “IBD patient sometimes suffer from anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and other mental conditions like eating disorders. Your GI doctor hopefully has established a healthy physician-patient relationship where you are comfortable to bring up any issues that you would like to discuss with your GI specialist. During my clinic visits apart from addressing the medical aspects of IBD, I frequently have a friendly conversation about my patient’s life in general with a focus on their overall well-being, including talking about their mental health. In addition, several individuals have a primary care provider (PCP) with whom they generally have a good relationship and feel comfortable bringing up any health-related concerns.     

Psychiatric conditions can manifest with sleep disturbances, fatigue, loss of appetite, lack of interest in activities that you previously enjoyed, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts, etc. Sometimes IBD flares can contribute to some of these symptoms, especially sleep disturbances due to night-time diarrhea or constant abdominal pain. Use of biological medications can be frequently associated with fatigue that may last a day or two after taking the biologic. In a large-scale UK based study, presence of a diagnosis of IBD was associated with a higher likelihood to cause deliberate self-harm, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Interestingly, the risk was higher among those with Crohn’s disease than with ulcerative colitis 3.

Remember, mental stress can also contribute to an IBD flare. Frequently I see some of my IBD patients go through an uncontrolled spell of psychological stress, maybe related to personal relationships or their place of employment. This when unchecked can precipitate an IBD flare, and in some cases develop psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression. Hence, it is important to have a stress-free life or mitigate stress to minimize its effect on your mind and body.”

NH: “I know you see a lot of college students; how do you navigate these concerns as their care provider? Do you tend to see this more with your younger patients—or is it across the board?”

Dr. ZaZ: “College life of a freshman can be quite stressful. The move away from the comforts of their homes to a new city or town and being surrounded by strangers can be overwhelming. This can cause psychological stress which may precipitate an IBD flare. Moving to college can also disrupt the continuity of care received from their established pediatric or adult GI specialist. Students may skip their medications due to storage issues, changes in insurance, feeling of shame of having IBD or fear of not being able to ‘fit-in’. All these factors can contribute to inadequate management of their underlying IBD. We at the University of Missouri try our best to accommodate college students in our clinics so they are cared for and IBD flares are prevented from occurring. The student health clinics are efficient in recognizing students with chronic illnesses and referring them to GI clinics. I frequently encourage students that they continue to see their primary GI specialist but also establish care in our clinic/hospital system, so in case there is a medical emergency or if they experience a flare, we will be well-informed beforehand about their medical history and have a plan in place to adequately treat them.  

In a large study comprising of more than one million IBD patients, it was shown that being a female, having diagnosed with IBD as a child or a young adult and having a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease have been associated with higher likelihood of suicide attempts and suicide death 4.

Mental disorders in IBD are seen across all age groups but are somewhat more pronounced in those individuals whose disease is not well controlled or have not achieved remission since their initial diagnosis. Majority of IBD cases are generally diagnosed at a young age, several times in college students. Unfortunately, we also see frequent occurrence of mental disorders in younger age groups. Students have additional mental stressors when they have a chronic bowel condition like IBD. Many feel that they the lack of freedom in choosing to eat anything they like when they go out with friends or their need for frequent bathroom breaks, which can sometimes hinder them from participating in activities they choose or in making new friends. Many feel embarrassed to disclose their medical conditions to new friends or acquaintances, this perhaps cannot be stressed enough among those with an ostomy bag.

This leads to a state of inadequate social/family support which may push at risk students into developing mental conditions like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.”

NH: “Any advice for caregivers of young patients–who may have concerns about their child/teen/young adult and are unsure how to make sure their child is not dealing with anxiety/depression, but don’t want to overstep or upset their loved one?”

Dr. ZaZ: “It is very important for not just the physicians but also the caregivers involved in managing IBD in young patients to recognize signs of depression or other mental disorders. Do not always assume that if an individual is constantly tired, has disturbed sleep or looks depressed, that it is due to their IBD. Several times these are early signs of depression, and these young individuals need the support and help that they deserve to address these issues. Perhaps adult patients who have depression may recognize it and seek help, but kids or teens generally do not perceive these signs as an abnormal expression of behavior and may not even disclose them to their loved ones. Caregivers who attend clinic visits with pediatric specialists should bring up any unusual behavior they notice about their child and discuss it with the provider.”

NH: “How can mental health issues exacerbate IBD symptoms? 

Dr. ZaZ: “Studies have shown that individuals with mental disorders who have IBD have a higher chance of developing IBD flares, they require escalation of their therapy and have increased incidence of death 5. (See Reference 5) This is quite alarming and should be brough to the attention of providers who take care of IBD patients. “Providers are not just prescribers”, simply writing prescriptions for medications, some of which are very expensive, is not enough to heal the patient. IBD is a chronic disease which lasts a lifetime, and medications alone cannot be the solution. Providers need to step up and participate in the mental well-being of their patients. If they are not able to address the mental health related issues themselves then referring to experts in the field is perhaps the best alternative approach. Depression may cause patients to skip their infusion visits or physician visits, uncontrolled anxiety or paranoid states may make them apprehensive about any therapy that they have been appropriately prescribed and may even stop the treatment. IBD patients with eating disorders may starve themselves or eat uncontrollably causing worsening of their bowel condition. These eating disorders are commonly present among young and female IBD patients who have body image disturbance 6.”

NH:How is anxiety and depression typically managed in patients with IBD? (Medication, talking to a psychologist, etc.?)”

Dr. ZaZ: “The first step to treating anxiety and depression is to approach a provider with whom you are comfortable to freely express your medical complaints, problems, or any issues that you would like to discuss. Psychotherapy or behavioral therapy is probably the preferred approach in mild cases but in individuals with more profound symptoms, medications may be preferred in addition to psychotherapy. Finding a good therapist and setting up sessions at frequent intervals is important. In severe cases with suicidal ideations or attempts perhaps hospitalization may be required.

Multiple medications are commonly used for treating anxiety and depression. A PCP or psychiatrist may be able to find the right one for you, and please make sure you follow up with these providers since these medications may need to be monitored for their side effects and to adjust the dosage. Sometimes GI physicians may feel comfortable to prescribe these medications, but that may generally not be true for majority of gastroenterologists.”

NH: “As a GI, how do you try and facilitate positive relationships with your patients to help ensure they feel at ease with taking on their disease, managing it, overcoming flares/surgery, etc.?”

Dr. ZaZ: “My first step towards approaching IBD is to make sure that the symptoms that my patients are complaining of are truly from IBD and not from IBS or any other illness. Once IBD is diagnosed, I have a detailed visit with my patient with their new diagnosis. I usually encourage them to read up as much as they can and write down questions about their illness prior to this clinic visit. During the visit I start by giving a broad overview of what IBD is and the mechanism of disease process.I do this little exercise of talking about mechanisms by which IBD develops because I have noticed in my experience that several patients feel guilty about having their illness, and believe that in some way it was ‘their fault’ that they developed IBD. We then focus our attention on what are the available treatments why I think the recommended treatment would be a good fit, so the patients can make an informed decisions about their choice of therapy. I highlight the signs or symptoms they need to look out for that could suggest a complication or flare up of IBD. We provide them access to communicate with our clinic team if they have any questions; if they are concerned about a flare or if they suspect side effects from their therapy. Next, I answer questions they may have come up with during my discussion or from their personal research prior to the visit. Once the questions are answered I provide them with written material about their illness. I frequently encourage our patients to join patient support groups and direct them to online sources for information about IBD like the website for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.”

NH: “Why is it so important to focus on whole person care–and recognize that IBD impacts more than the GI tract?”

Dr. ZaZ: “If we understand the mechanism by which IBD develops in the body, we can say that a dysfunctional immune system perhaps has the central role in the disease process. This immune system is connected to the entire body, it’s in our blood, guts, and other organs. Abnormal functioning of this immune system is likely to affect the entire body, although in IBD this abnormality primarily targets the bowels. But we frequently encounter what are called the “extra-intestinal manifestations of IBD”. These are referred to conditions that cause joint pains, skin rashes, eye redness, oral ulcers, liver disorders and other symptoms or signs that can be encountered in patients with IBD. Beyond these, patients with IBD are shown to be associated with higher incidence of mental disorders, pregnancy-related complications, chronic fatigue, and vitamin/mineral deficiencies. The effect on the bowels by this disease has a major impact on what one can eat, thereby limiting their nutritional intake. It is only fitting to treat these individuals as a whole, and not just their bowels. In terms of methods of treatment, apart from allopathic medical therapies, several other modalities of treatment are now being explored and accepted. Addressing diet and exercise is an important aspect to maintain healthy lifestyle in general, and especially so in patients with IBD. Running or other forms of cardio-based exercises have been shown to have a positive impact on the disease. Consuming healthy dietary supplements, like probiotics have been shown to be beneficial. Relaxation techniques and meditation also help keep oneself stress free, and perhaps prevent development of mental disorders as well.

One last thing we must also remember is that in today’s world social media can contribute to a lot of mental stress and anxiety, especially where disinformation campaigns can lead to confusion and poor choices in life. Hence it is important to have reliable resources to gain knowledge about IBD and its therapies. Sources like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and its members like Natalie have been leading in educating several individuals through various platforms. In summary, eat healthy, exercise regularly, educate yourself about IBD, try to relieve stress and follow up with your doctor for medical care.”

I hope this article sparks a conversation and allows you to feel less alone in your mental health struggles. The findings show it’s anything but “just in your head.” Your feelings, fears, and struggles are valid. You are loved. You are not a burden. You are worth it. You matter. We need you here. Remember that.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or if you would like emotional support, call 988 any day of the week, any time. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States.

Reference Guide List

1: Coates, M. D., Mahoney, C. R., Linden, D. R., Sampson, J. E., Chen, J., Blaszyk, H., Crowell, M. D., Sharkey, K. A., Gershon, M. D., Mawe, G. M., & Moses, P. L. (2004). Molecular defects in mucosal serotonin content and decreased serotonin reuptake transporter in ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology, 126(7), 1657–1664. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2004.03.013

2: Tarar, Z. I., Zafar, M. U., Farooq, U., Ghous, G., Aslam, A., Inayat, F., & Ghouri, Y. A. (2022). Burden of depression and anxiety among patients with inflammatory bowel disease: results of a nationwide analysis. International journal of colorectal disease, 37(2), 313–321. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00384-021-04056-9

3: Umar, N., King, D., Chandan, J. S., Bhala, N., Nirantharakumar, K., Adderley, N., Zemedikun, D. T., Harvey, P., & Trudgill, N. (2022). The association between inflammatory bowel disease and mental ill health: a retrospective cohort study using data from UK primary care. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics, 56(5), 814–822. https://doi.org/10.1111/apt.17110

4: Xiong, Q., Tang, F., Li, Y., Xie, F., Yuan, L., Yao, C., Wu, R., Wang, J., Wang, Q., & Feng, P. (2022). Association of inflammatory bowel disease with suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 160, 110983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2022.110983

5: Fairbrass, K. M., Gracie, D. J., & Ford, A. C. (2022). Relative Contribution of Disease Activity and Psychological Health to Prognosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease During 6.5 Years of Longitudinal Follow-Up. Gastroenterology, 163(1), 190–203.e5. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2022.03.014

6: Stoleru, G., Leopold, A., Auerbach, A., Nehman, S., & Wong, U. (2022). Female gender, dissatisfaction with weight, and number of IBD related surgeries as independent risk factors for eating disorders among patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. BMC gastroenterology, 22(1), 438. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12876-022-02526-0

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.