Chronic Illness

How Crohn’s and Depression Pushed This Man Into Law School

After chronic illness caused him to spiral into depression, JD Ward is studying to help people like him from falling between the system's cracks.

Before being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at the age of 18, and subsequently suffering a blood infection that almost claimed his life, JD Ward had never experienced anxiety or depression. But he says that physical and mental health are inextricably linked. And he wants to use his experiences to help others with mental illness.

In the years before his diagnosis, JD was part of more than one band, routinely traveling and playing in front of crowds. Having been given a guitar at the age of 12, he found in music an emotional outlet as well as a part-time job. Even though he describes himself as an antisocial introvert, being on stage never bothered him.

J.D. Ward.

When he began to get symptoms of a mysterious illness at 17, JD left the music circuit and returned to his family home. He was soon diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and put on medication to help manage the illness.

But all would not be well. In 2012, the medicine reacted with a virus and caused the life-threatening blood disease Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis.

“For all intents and purposes, HLH is like cancer,” says JD, who, near death, spent time in intensive care receiving multiple surgeries and cancer treatments. “It is in remission now, but it could come back.”

While being treated, JD had to give up his job and was given a colostomy bag for eight months. He struggled to adapt to his new life, and eventually made the decision to go back to school.

Initially, he signed up for pre-med. He says the idea behind studying medicine was that he wanted to be the one in the doctor’s chair, rather than the patient.

After a year, he decided to change direction and chose a double major in law and psychology. He hopes to use the combination to help people with mental illness, especially those within the legal system.

“It can be hard to find people who can empathize with physical and mental illness, when most people haven’t experienced it. So they don’t know how to respond.”

It took several years for JD to get his own diagnosis of anxiety and depression. Even though his father works as forensic mental health nurse, he felt unable to talk about what he was experiencing.

“I knew if I went and talked to Dad, he’d know what to do, but I still couldn’t do it. But it was him that helped me get diagnosed with depression, when I was in the hospital recently.”

“Once I’d accepted that I had a mental illness and I needed to get help, it was a lot easier to keep the conversation going.”

“Once I’d accepted that I had a mental illness and I needed to get help, it was a lot easier to keep the conversation going,:

Living at home while he’s studying means JD can have these conversations whenever he needs to. His father and his brother both work in the same criminal mental health unit, so JD’s interest in the intersection of law and psychology seems to run in the family. He says it felt like a natural pathway.

“I’m not sure exactly what job I’m going to have, but I want to help ensure people with mental illness retain their human rights within the legal system. People with mental health difficulties are often underrepresented and can slip through the cracks.

For example, if you’ve been contained under [New Zealand’s] Mental Health Act you lose your autonomy because of the risk to yourself or others, but it’s so important we make sure people are not devalued, that their rights are still upheld when that happens.”

JD has three years left before he will graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Psychology.

His Crohn’s Disease, while controlled more than ever before with the chemotherapy medications Remicade and Methotrexate, is an “ongoing battle.” As well as having low energy and appetite, he is on the waiting list for surgery on a fistula: a tract in his gut that leaks and never heals.

A typical day for JD means getting to the gym, getting to class, and getting home to rest. Those things will all be impacted by how many bathroom trips he might need, how much food he can eat during that day – and whether or not his mental health is playing ball. If it’s a bad day, he may not be able to do any of those things.

He also still plays guitar, and says it’s an essential hobby that helps keep him grounded, as well as an emotional outlet.

Now at law school, JD wants to practice law to defend the rights of those with mental health issues.

“I get pretty angry sometimes, music helps with that. I’ve come to terms with my illness, but sometimes a doctor might say certain things, and it gets to me.

“It’s unhealthy to deny yourself that right to be angry. I spent a long time not accepting the full extent of what I’d been going through, it became really hard to reconcile everything. Once you do accept it and you get angry and upset – then you can let that go and move forward.”

It’s unhealthy to deny yourself that right to be angry… Once you do accept it and you get angry and upset – then you can let that go and move forward.”

The music is another thing he shares with his father, who has been playing since before he was born. JD has put some of his own recordings online, but says that can make him feel pretty anxious.

“It’s quite a vulnerable thing to do, and you have the anxiety about criticism or judgment over what you’re sharing.

“You have to write crap before you get to the gold. And you don’t want to, of course, you’ve got the anxiety of how people might react to that.”

When he thinks about his life in ten years, JD says he hopes he’s in a position where he’s helping make people’s lives better.

“In this day and age, mental health is still in the background, so we need more people bringing it to the forefront, and protecting the rights of people while we do it.”