Diabetes may be a physical condition, but the mental impact can be huge. It’s a lifelong condition in which the pancreas either doesn’t produce any of the hormone, insulin (Type 1) or doesn’t produce enough (Type 2), causing a person’s blood sugar levels to become too high.
A study of sufferers by Diabetes UK, found 64% of those questioned often felt down because of their diabetes, with some suffering from problems such as depression and anxiety, while a third of respondents said diabetes had got in the way of them or a family member doing things they wanted to do in the previous week.
Chris Askew, Diabetes UK chief executive, says: “This new research brings to light the isolation that can come from managing an invisible condition, and how detrimental living with diabetes can be to a person’s emotional wellbeing without the right support.”
The charity is calling for more provision of psychological support for those living with the condition, which affects more than 4.5 million people in the UK, and can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and lower limb amputations. Here’s what you need to know.
Today is #WorldDiabetesDay. Over 9,000 voices have had their say on the #FutureOfDiabetes. Were you one of them? Watch our video and join the fight for a better future: https://t.co/CzHqAOMjit pic.twitter.com/PMFyyt7oLy— Diabetes UK (@DiabetesUK) November 14, 2017
Mental health problems are more common in people with diabetes than we realise
“Mental health and diabetes is rarely discussed,” says Douglas Twenefour, deputy head of care at Diabetes UK, “but it’s common in people with diabetes.
“Depression is twice as common in people with diabetes as in the general population, and around 40% of people with diabetes experience poor psychological wellbeing, often directly related to the demands of living with diabetes.”
Lis Warren was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1965 when she was 13 years old, and suffered from an eating disorder as a result of living with the disease. “When I was diagnosed, diabetes was seen as a medical condition, but there was little understanding of the effect it has on mental health, so psychological support was unavailable. I started struggling with food when I was a teenager. When I look back now, I had an eating disorder. I was having seizures from low blood sugar when I was routinely eating insufficient carbohydrate to lose weight – I didn’t speak to anyone about how diabetes had affected my mental health for 40 years.”
Mental health problems triggered by diabetes can cause people to lose motivation to self-manage
Managing the condition is hugely important for people suffering from both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Patients needs to continually monitor their blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A mild case of hypoglycemia (caused by blood glucose levels dropping) can usually be treated by eating or drinking a fast acting carbohydrate. But severe hypoglycemia requires medical treatment and, while rare, can lead to coma and death.
“It is important that people with diabetes who have mental health problems get support,” says Douglas. “Mental health problems among people with diabetes can reduce their ability and motivation to self-manage, leading to poorer quality of life and a greater likelihood of complications and early death.”
Placing any blame on people with Type 2 diabetes can be harmful
Unlike Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 is linked to obesity, which means mean making positive lifestyle changes – such as eating a healthy diet, exercising and stopping smoking – can help prevent people from developing the disease. But this may not be the only reason people develop Type 2 diabetes.
“People should also refrain from blaming people with diabetes,” Douglas explains. “This is especially the case for people with Type 2 diabetes. Although we know that weight and lifestyle is a significant factor in Type 2 diabetes, there are still a lot of things we do not fully know about the condition. There are a lot more factors associated with Type 2 diabetes, such as ethnicity, family history and age, so the link between obesity and diabetes needs to be carefully explained.”
Education about the condition for people living with it is vital to combat mental health issues
Knowledge is power when it comes to living with either type of diabetes. Douglas says: “People with diabetes need access to the right information and advice, at diagnosis and throughout their lives. We would advise that people with diabetes go on educational programmes, like DAFNE or DESMOND, to help them experiment, learn and take action to manage their condition well.
“Peer-to-peer and online forums, like Diabetes UK’s support forum, are also a great way to talk to other people with diabetes. Sharing and finding out more about the condition with other people is a great way to get support.”
He adds: “It is very important for loved ones to understand how diabetes impacts on their day-to-day life and know their individual needs.”