Samantha Bartell was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis over 10 years ago and is looking to raise awareness as this May is Crohn's and Colitis Awareness month. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Samantha Bartell was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis over 10 years ago and is looking to raise awareness as this May is Crohn's and Colitis Awareness month. Picture: Zak Simmonds

Mental health fear on ‘invisible illness’

SAMANTHA  Bartel, 25, was just 19 when she was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel ­disease.

The Belgian Gardens resident said she suffered through excruciating stomach pain, unexplained weight loss, exhaustion, nausea and more than 20 trips to the toilet each day.

"A lot of people don't know about the disease; it's an invisible illness," Ms Bartel said.

"It's not a topic people really want to discuss either; it grosses some people out."

This month is Crohn's and Colitis Awareness month, which hopes to raise awareness about the psychological distress associated with these chronic illnesses.

Research released by Crohn's and Colitis Australia has revealed one in two ­Australians living with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis experience mental health ­issues.

"It's embarrassing to have to run to the toilet during everyday life," Ms Bartel said.

"I have suffered with anxiety and depression as well since being diagnosed."

The research revealed many people aren't routinely assessed and lack access to ­services to support their physical and mental wellbeing.

The survey found 50 per cent of patients reported psychological distress, and 59 per cent of patients agreed that having access to a mental health expert was an important part of managing their Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Only 16 per cent of ­patients reported being asked about their mental health by their doctor.

Ms Bartel said she had made a number of lifestyle changes since her diagnosis.

"I'm gluten free and vegan … some people don't accept that so there is exclusion as well sometimes … I've been ­diagnosed with coeliac disease as well," she said.

"I try to live a holistic lifestyle, chemical free; I'm trying to make better choices in life."

Ms Bartel said she was lucky to have such supportive family and friends.

"My brother also has an ­autoimmune disease; he has Type 1 diabetes, he understands," she said. "We are very supportive of each other. Some days he gets down about ­having his disease, I get down about my disease; we rant a bit."

Chief executive of Crohn's and Colitis Australia Associate Professor Leanne Raven said anxiety and depression remained undiagnosed and unsupported in large numbers of patients with inflammatory bowel ­disease.

"Most people have access to specialists for their physical health, such as gastroenterologists, but only 12 per cent have a psychologist in their team and 11 per cent are currently seeing a psychologist," she said. "While Crohn's and ­colitis are considered physical ­diseases, their mental impacts are significant but often left untreated."