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Digestive health: making the invisible visible

Digestive disorders can make people’s lives a misery through shame and stigma. It’s time all of us understood these conditions more.


By their nature, digestive disorders are generally invisible. But just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not very real, life-changing issues for hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, their impact can be devastating. You just might not realise.

Take Crohn’s disease and colitis, for example. There are over 300,000 people in the UK alone living with these two long-term, incurable, inflammatory bowel conditions. One of their main presenting symptoms is chronic diarrhoea which, during a flare-up, may result in 20 or 30 visits to the toilet a day. Three in four patients have said that they have had an accident in public because they couldn’t reach a toilet in time.

Digestive disorders can impact mental wellbeing

Unfortunately, in British culture, we don’t tend to deal with issues about our poo very well. In fact, it’s become a source of humour: something to ridicule. If a bowel condition affects you personally, however, it’s no laughing matter. It’s made worse if you feel shame and stigma, rather than sympathy and support.

Three in four patients have said they had an accident in public because they couldn’t reach a toilet in time.

In fact, shockingly, we know that 52% of people with Crohn’s and colitis have experienced discrimination because of their condition; while over 50% have received negative comments while using accessible toilets. This is the real shame. And it’s unacceptable. If people don’t have the confidence to access the facilities they need when they need them, it can make them feel isolated and have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing.

Over the last 30 years, we have significantly progressed disability awareness and rights in workplaces and the physical environment. Yet we still have a long way to go to remove the stigma associated with digestive health disorders.

That’s why our organisation started a campaign to challenge public perception of such conditions and emphasise that: ‘Not Every Disability is Visible’, by changing accessible toilet signage across the UK. This is having a positive effect: 80% of people with Crohn’s and colitis said that they felt more comfortable visiting a site with the signage installed.

More awareness of these conditions is needed

Stigma isn’t the only issue surrounding digestive disorders. Diagnosis can be frustratingly slow. Naturally, much more needs to be done. Thankfully, research for new breakthroughs goes on, although — of course — this requires funding.

All of us are able to help people with digestive disorders, however. We can do it by talking about these conditions, understanding them, and stopping the stigma associated with them.

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