You already have so much to deal with; you don’t need to be judged or misunderstood, too. Here’s what you can do about the stigma of having diabetes.
It’s hard enough dealing with what can be a debilitating disease without having to cope with other people’s misconceptions about it as well.
But the reality is that the stigma connected to diabetes is alive and well, as you probably know if you have the disease. There are ways, however, to cope — both to help yourself psychologically and to suppress the stigma within your social sphere.
A survey of more than 5,000 people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes diabetes found that the stigma does affect a majority of patients. In the survey’s Q and A format, social stigma was described as a set of negative beliefs or a mark of disapproval that society has about a certain disease.
Among those who responded that diabetes has a stigma, most perceived “a sense of failure of personal responsibility” or that having diabetes was a character flaw. Those perceptions, in turn, lead you to feel “guilt, shame, embarrassment, isolation, or blame,” the survey authors reported.
Because of such backlash, there is an increasing awareness of the need for public education about diabetes and the challenges that come with keeping it under control. Stigma has diminished over time, the survey reported, when compared to decades ago, when people might have lost their job over the condition and, as a result, desperately tried to hide it.
Yet more work is needed.
Meanwhile, here are some tips you can keep in mind to help yourself.
You have nothing to hide or feel guilty about
It’s easier said than done and harder to believe. But knowing you don’t have to hide or feel guilty is a first step in clearing your mind of the mental burden you carry around day after day.
People shouldn’t shame your food choices
One of the toughest aspects of diabetes you deal with involves the food you eat. When people know you have diabetes, even your closest friends, you’re going to be watched, as though you’re not smart enough or have enough self-control to handle food choices yourself.
Some dietitians or nutritionists will recommend carbohydrate counting, since carbs can raise your blood sugar. They are also an essential part of a healthy diet and your body’s natural fuel. A diabetes nutrition expert at your local hospital or from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) can help design a plan that works for you if you want to delve more deeply into what and how you eat.
If a well-intentioned but misguided person gives you grief over that brownie you’re reaching for, use that occasion to educate her about something she actually knows little about. You can also have some good responses ready beforehand. One to keep in mind is “diabetes care has changed. But thanks for thinking of me.”
If you are overweight or obese
If you happen to be diabetic and overweight or obese, things get even harder. “Fat shaming,” being reminded consistently — often in public — that you are overweight and it’s your fault, often comes with a diagnosis of diabetes. It comes from the misguided, and downright mean, notion that you will change yourself if people comment on your weight.
The ADA says that tactic not only doesn’t work but also makes people who experience it less likely to lose weight and avoid physical activity, both of which can make diabetes worse.
The ADA encourages people who have concerns for you to ask that you join them at the gym and praise you for the healthy choices you make on your own. Such information helps you remind cruel people that there more positive ways they can help. Otherwise, you don’t need their advice or “help.”
Other suggestions include:
- Mindfully managing your stress
- Joining a support group
- Talking about your diabetes so others understand the condition
- Letting go of guilt, fear, and shame that can lead to depression and prevent you from taking care of yourself
If you need help with mental health problems, find a therapist who can provide a framework. And don’t get caught up in the stigma attached to seeing a therapist. Counseling is a booming business for a reason.
Use the criticism to your advantage
If criticism and insensitivity start to make you angry, channel that energy into action rather than letting it eat you from the inside out. A therapist or counselor can help you learn to do that, sometimes teaching you mindfulness meditation or another way to keep yourself in the present and centered.
Always think about the good things in your life and what you enjoy, be it gardening or bird watching — and do them. Being mentally healthy helps you better deal with the challenges of diabetes and let go of the extra baggage stigma brings to them.
For more information on diabetes stigma, you can view the full poster presentation on the subject from the ADA.
October 13, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN