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Chronic illnesses stay invisible

By Brooke Robinson, News Editor

Look around your 100 person lecture hall, everyone sitting and staring at the professor, some people falling asleep and some completely intrigued — but overall you’re all just college students. There are so many things you couldn’t know about all those individuals.

Would you be able to guess that 20 of your classmates are suffering from a hidden, chronic illness?

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) website, an invisible illness “refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as color and vision impairments.”

The website says that these invisible illnesses are not always obvious to an onlooker. However, they can present problems that vary between individuals; they can limit daily activities — ranging from mild to severe.

University of New Hampshire Community Health Nurse and Wellness Educator and Counselor Judy Stevens has helped students suffering from a range of illnesses, such as Lupus, Lyme disease, some types of cancers, multiple sclerosis, chronic headaches and Crohn’s disease.

“A big part of what I do is I see students who have chronic illnesses going on,” Stevens said.

Stevens acts as an advocate for students with chronic illnesses. She meets with students to help them understand what help is available to them through health services. “Through that,” she said, “I realized that the students really feel alone when they are dealing with things that are not visible.”

To combat this, Stevens runs the Living Well Support Group. They meet weekly to talk about how they are doing and what is on their minds. Everyone in the support group has some sort of chronic, invisible illness, which allows them to bond with each other and form friendships.

“The main reason for [the support group] is so that students can feel connected to other students,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t have to be the same diagnosis, but they are connected with what that student is going through … experiences, sometimes symptoms.”

Stevens suggested that the group helps students because those without unseen illnesses cannot understand what they’re going through.

“I’ve talked to so many students that have chronic things going on, and I think their peers don’t understand,” Stevens said. Students with health issues may not be able to go out with their friends, and for that they could be judged or feel isolated.

Stevens could not give names of students or compile numbers to represent how many students utilize these services.

According to Molly’s Fund Fighting Lupus’ website, “Spreading awareness about invisible illnesses … is the only way to create a more accepting, understanding world with medical and social validation for those who suffer.”

The number one hidden illness affecting UNH students is asthma, although many students suffering from asthma are unlikely to seek help from health services. The second most common illness is diabetes, followed by problems like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, Stevens said.

Stevens also stressed that mental illness is considered chronic illness and shouldn’t be disregarded. However, the stigma associated with mental illness often keeps students from coming forward and seeking help. This contributes to sufferers feeling like they are alone and that they are not understood.

This is why Stevens focuses so much on a connected feeling in the Living Well Support Group. For students seeking help or support, the Office of Health Education and Promotion and the Counseling Center are safe and reliable resources to go to.

“A lot of students have things and feel like they’re the only ones, and they’re so not the only ones,” Stevens said. “My big thing is letting students know that they’re not alone so they feel more connected.”

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