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The Impact of Bladder and Bowel Issues on Education for Young People in the UK

group of youths sat with their tablets and laptops

International Youth Day was started by the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 as a way of raising awareness of the challenges and problems faced by those aged between 10 and 24 years old. It also raises awareness of the role of young people as partners in change.

The theme of International Youth Day 2019, which falls on 12th August each year, is ‘Transforming Education’.

It highlights efforts to make education more inclusive and accessible for young people. It is known that education has many benefits, one of which is better health. In the UK we are fortunate that all young people should have access to education. However, experiences of school and college can be negatively affected by health conditions, including bladder and bowel issues.

It is accepted that nearly a million children and young people in the UK have difficulties with their bladder and/or bowel. While a higher percentage of young children are affected, compared to teenagers and young adults, professionals feel that bladder and bowel problems are often not reported by teenagers. The true numbers affected are likely to be much higher.

There are many reasons why young people do not disclose a bladder or bowel problem.

These include feeling different at a time of life when fitting-in is very important. Embarrassment, shame, anxiety, not believing that anything can be done to help and sometimes previous attempts at treatment that have not worked are all factors as well. Occasionally young people have experienced punishment for having wetting or soiling ‘accidents’ making them feel the best course of action is to hide the problem. A lack of specialist services for young people with bladder and bowel difficulties in some parts of the UK does not help.

Bladder and bowel issues affect young people at school and therefore have an impact on their education. Toilet facilities are not always clean, or well-stocked. They may even feel unsafe for some young people.   Too often young people tell us that they are not allowed to use the toilet when they need to, causing anxiety and difficulty in concentrating on lessons. For those who have open access to the toilet, leaving the classroom during lessons several times a day, disrupts learning and may result in others asking questions the affected person would rather not answer.

Many adults are not aware that continence (bladder and bowel problems) affect young people. Teachers generally want to help support young people, but if they are unaware of the possibility of a problem, let alone that one or more of their students is trying to cope with an issue, they are unable to support.

What causes bladder and bowel problems in young people?

Some young people are born with bladder and/or bowel problems. They may need surgery or treatments in early childhood and may continue to need medical interventions, such as using catheters to drain their bladder, or bowel washouts to help them poo, into adulthood and beyond.

Other young people have not had problems until they were a few weeks, months or years old. Problems which develop when there is no underlying issue with the way the bladder or bowel are constructed are called ‘functional’ problems.  Functional problems include day and nighttime wetting, having to rush to the toilet, having to use the toilet frequently, having constipation or having soiling (poo leaking into the underwear). Functional problems are very common and can affect anyone, although they are more common in those with additional needs. With the right treatment most functional bladder and bowel issues can be cured or improved.

What can be done to help?

For young people who have a bladder and/or bowel issue, the first step is to speak to a trusted adult, visit your GP (family doctor) or speak to your school nurse. They may be able to offer some initial advice and should know who the best person is to speak to in your area.

What about school?

If you feel able to let a teacher at school know about the issues you are having with toileting, they may be able to help. Many secondary schools will provide a ‘medical’ or ‘time out’ card to students who need open access to the toilet. Discuss your needs with them. Disabled toilets or gender-neutral toilets should have bins in them for those who need to dispose of equipment such as catheters or pads.

If your school toilets are not of a good standard or do not provide all the facilities you need, then consider bringing this up with the school council. You could suggest a fund-raising scheme to help improve the toilets, or ask the senior school staff to work with you to get better cleaning and stocking of the toilets.

Where else can I get advice and information?

Bladder & Bowel UK is a national charity that is able to offer resources, advice and information to people of all ages who are affected by bladder and/or bowel issues and to those who support them.

Bladder & Bowel UK have lots of resources and information available on their website at www.bbuk.org.uk that are free to download and print. Bladder & Bowel UK also have a confidential helpline at email bladderandboweluk@disabledliving.co.uk or telephone 0161 607 8219.

This post has been written by Davina Richardson, Children’s Specialist Nurse at BBUK. To view similar posts please visit www.bbuk.org.uk/blog.

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