If you’re a student, this is an exciting time of year for you. You’re ready to return to school, springtime is mere weeks away and you’re one semester closer to achieving your academic goals. But if you’re a student who has to manage going back to school with chronic pain, your experience may be far more challenging.
Your struggle will include more than the physical pain from your condition. It’s likely you will endure emotional stressors such as feelings of isolation and anxiety as well as the sting of social stigmas. It seems cruel that those in middle school, high school and college have to work so hard to manage the new school year with chronic pain.
But the reality is that on campuses throughout the United States, students living with an invisible illness often suffer in silence. Many of the students don’t understand their pain and may go untreated and undiagnosed. Others may not have the support to help them overcome social stigmas or they may not be able to afford medical care. Even worse, some students may be unable to manage their mental health, assuming their troubling feelings are “normal” due to social pressure or academic workloads.
“It’s just the stress of being a college student.”
Here are 4 ways you can kickstart how you manage going back to school with chronic pain.
#1: Know that physical pain isn’t just in your head
For college students suffering chronic physical pain, kicking off a new semester can be a challenge for other reasons. Living in constant pain makes packing and moving an overwhelming task that requires planning and relying on a support system. Even a long car ride or a flight back to campus can be exhausting when you’re in chronic pain.
Tabitha McDuffee, a young woman living with fibromyalgia, recently shared how her journey impacted her academic career. Prior to getting a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, the doctors told her she was fine or the pain was in her head. Needless to say she felt dismissed. One doctor told her, “It’s just the stress of being a college student.” McDuffee suffered her chronic pain alone and went undiagnosed for years. Today, she’s managing her chronic pain with a long-term plan and working as an advocate for other women with fibromyalgia.
#2: Know you are not alone with chronic pain
Medical research tells us that close to half of all Americans suffer from at least one chronic illness, and that number is only set to increase. Among those affected are those with conditions causing chronic pain. It’s estimated that 50 million adults live with chronic pain and close to 20 million adults live with high-impact chronic pain.
Young children and teens suffer as well. It’s estimated that up to 35% of children and teens around the world experience some form of chronic pain. Other chronic illnesses and conditions like autoimmune diseases, heart disease and diabetes affect 54% of millennials.
That means it’s likely many of those on your campus are struggling and seeking answers and support as well. By more easily recognizing pain in students, the medical community and campuses across the country can help diminish the stigma of chronic pain.
#3: Join a community for chronic pain support
There are a plethora of online communities that work hard to raise awareness for and illustrate that youth does not shield anyone from chronic pain. As you’re facing the dawn of a new school day, know that going back to campus isn’t something you must face alone.
It’s quite possible to manage a brand new school year with chronic pain. Current research shows that collaborative efforts between students, teachers, the healthcare community and education leaders are key in ensuring students have the support they need. Colleges and universities are looking at how to better support students with chronic pain, especially as it relates to student development. And community support projects are seeking collaborations and ideas from schools across the country.
Today campuses offer support systems for students including disability services for students living with long terms chronic illness and conditions. These programs are often designed to ease anxiety, prevent serious depressive episodes and provide personalized support.
#4: Remember that everyone has a story
A chilling, yet beautiful story out of the University of Pennsylvania illustrates the seriousness of mental wellness in young adults. Madison Holleran was an aspiring athlete and all-around beloved college student who committed suicide in 2014. She was only 19 years old.
Madison’s story is particularly relevant to the discussion of going back to school with chronic pain. It explores the juxtaposition between life on social media and what’s really happening. She projected a life through her Instagram that “was filled with shots that seemed to confirm everyone’s expectations: Of course she was loving her first year of college.”
The truth is that Meghan was overwhelmed at school and was suffering from depression. She had seen a therapist. Her family tried to help. Her friends tried to help. She had a dedicated support system. She was talented, beautiful, smart and loved by everyone who knew her. She was not in physical pain, but her emotional pain was unbearable. And she ended her young life as a result.
Her story could be the story of the student sitting next to you in your next class. Or it could be the story of your locker mate or your best friend from middle school. As school starts this year, remember that you are not alone in your chronic pain and that others are seeking support as well. You may find like Tabitha McDuffee that a way to help manage your pain is to help others. You may also find it’s much easier to face your chronic health conditions and school work when you let others know how to best support you.
What are your best tips for others who are going back to school with chronic pain?
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