There’s a good chance that someone you know has diabetes. It is a disease that affects more than 30 million people in the US—about 9% of the population. With those numbers, you’d think we would be more accustomed to hearing about and supporting people with diabetes. But in fact, they often face misunderstanding and stigma. People with diabetes are often exposed to mistaken notions that diabetes is not a serious illness and can be easily managed with lifestyle changes such as diet or activity changes. When told, explicitly or implicitly, that having diabetes is a sign of personal weakness and failure, people with diabetes may suffer from guilt, shame, embarrassment, and isolation. Such feelings are reported not only by adults but also by children living with diabetes and their parents.
The damage inflicted by stigma goes far beyond the emotional toll. People with diabetes who reported feeling stigmatized have been shown to have poorer diabetes control, including higher A1C levels, a higher body mass index (BMI), and a higher rate of self-reported uncontrolled diabetes.
Let’s do a better job of supporting our friends and family members living with this condition. Here are some ways you can combat stigma and support the people you know with diabetes.
- Don’t refer to people as “diabetics.” People with diabetes do not want to be defined by a diagnosis. Instead, say “a person with diabetes.”
- Don’t blame or judge. People often associate diabetes with poor lifestyle choices, such as inactivity and obesity. But the fact is, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease and not caused by lifestyle choices. Type 2 diabetes is influenced by a combination of a person’s genetics; aging; social factors such as low income, employment issues, and low educational level; and lifestyle factors. Type 2 diabetes can also be caused by some hormonal diseases, certain diseases (such as hyperthyroidism and pancreas disorders), or by certain medicines.
- Participate in healthy choices. It’s important for people with diabetes to take steps to manage the disease—and you can help. For example, if you eat meals together, eat the same healthy foods that they do—specifically, items that are low in fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugar. Don’t buy foods that they aren’t supposed to eat, because that can make them feel more self-conscious and isolated.
You should also encourage the person to follow their healthcare provider’s advice for physical activity, and even better, you can even join them in the activities.
Even if you mean well, avoid giving advice (when not asked for) about eating habits or other aspects of diabetes care. Leave it to the person’s healthcare provider to work with the person to manage their diabetes.
- Learn to recognize signs of a problem. For example, episodes of high blood sugar (called hyperglycemia) and low blood sugar (called hypoglycemia) can cause irritability.
Other signs of high blood sugar that you may notice include being thirstier than usual and urinating frequently. Other signs of low blood sugar include nervousness, confusion, pale skin color, having little or no energy, and clumsiness.
- Accept blood sugar checks and medication regimens as normal and routine occurrences, anytime and anywhere. Some people with diabetes may be hesitant to check their blood sugar or take their medicine, such as insulin injections, in public. You can help by offering your support and showing your understanding that it’s a necessary part of their everyday diabetes management plan.
- Ask how you can help. Some people may need help with some parts of their diabetes management plan. Keep in mind that what they need may be different than what you think. Ask what you can do to help.
- Help with finding additional support. It can be helpful for a person with diabetes to talk with others who will understand his or her situation. This could include someone else with diabetes, a diabetes educator, or a local diabetes support group.
By understanding that diabetes is a disease that requires careful and lifelong monitoring and management, you can take steps to support the people in your life with diabetes while also helping to remove stigma and replace it with acceptance.