It’s World Mental Health Day and that seems as a good as any a day to speak about diabetes and mental health. Actually, every day is a good day for that, but with every health organisation’s social media manager’s attention turned to today’s health promotion day, I’m jumping on that bandwagon and adding this post to the myriad on Diabetogenic that address the very significant issue of diabetes and mental health.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that we don’t speak about diabetes and mental health these days. We do. As is so often the case, the conversations started in the community, led by people with diabetes and then were slowly, but surely picked up by other stakeholders. Many health professionals are tuned into mental healthcare being part of diabetes care. And in recent years, diabetes organisations have followed the lead of the community by running public health campaigns aimed at raising awareness of diabetes and mental health. Thanks to peer-reviewed research, we have evidence to show that diabetes impacts mental health and that mental health impacts diabetes.
But even if we say confidently say that diabetes mental health is on the agenda, there is still good reason to believe that more light be shed on the topic, and more attention be given to it. And to really advocate for mental health care to be seen as part and parcel of diabetes care. I really do believe that would make a huge difference.
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When we talk mental health in diabetes, there’s a lot to consider. Of course, there are the diabetes-specific things like diabetes burnout and diabetes distress. Plus, eating disorders can take on a particularly diabetes-focus with conditions such as diabulimia (which really, really needs to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – it’s such a difficult, under-researched, misunderstood, yet very present reality for so many people living with diabetes).
I couldn’t even try to estimate the number of times I’ve given talks about diabetes and mental health from a lived experience perspective. But I am always happy to be asked, and always willing to talk about it, even if it means being quite vulnerable and exposed when I do so.
I remember when my work in diabetes organisations started to focus more on mental health, and I also remember when those discussions were accompanied by a change in narrative. Suddenly, a lot of what we spoke about – from diabetes-related complications to risk reduction – came with a side serve of mental health commentary. It helped to show the undeniable link between the two. And the community responded to that favourably.
Diabetes has never just been about glucose levels, or carbohydrates. And there are healthcare professionals and researchers and organisation leaders that understand that – probably because they have spent time really listening to people with diabetes, rather than just churning out the old tropes about the ticking time bomb of diabetes. Actually, those tropes have probably contributed to a lot of diabetes-related distress.
Starting conversations about diabetes and mental health can be difficult. I like to think that all HCPs these days are aware of the intersection between diabetes care and mental health care, but sadly, I don’t think that is necessarily the case. If the stories I frequently see on social media are anything to go by, there is still a way to go when it comes to having frank, open, honest discussions that recognise that the mental health of people with diabetes needs attention.
These days, I know that my mental health is really not that great. While I know that may seem alarming, I actually see it as progress. Being able to identify that I am feeling this way means I can do something about it. In years gone by, I had no awareness about my mental state. I didn’t know what to do about it.
When I talk about how my mental health is faring – especially when feeling as I do now – there is often surprise. I am not backwards in coming forwards and I know that many people see me as confident, assertive, and self-assured. And I am that way. I’m also pretty bubbly and positive about life in general. But with it comes some dark times and dark thoughts and dark days that are really not especially easy to manage.
I don’t know about others, but when things are dark, everything seems bigger and scarier. I had a low the other night that hit below 2.0mmol/l, and ordinarily I’d deal with it and move on. But during the hypo and since then I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it and worrying about it. It never pays to play ‘what if’ in diabetes, and yet most of my thoughts when remembering the other night have started that way. The constant crap that I’ve been dealing with in the advocacy space for far too long now feels unbearable, and seems so, so nasty that I feel a wave of anxiety just being online. The burden of simply doing diabetes feels massive. The other day, I cried when my insulin pump demanded a battery change. And I can’t shake this overwhelming feeling that I have no idea what I am doing with my own diabetes management and am so anxious about complications, even though there is no good reason for it. These are the dark feelings. The reason sleep gets disturbed. The reason that my heart beats faster.
If I could wave a wand and make one thing come true this World Mental Health Day, it would be that everyone with diabetes has access to mental health care as part of routine diabetes care. And if I could wave that wand for a second time, I’d want my own mental health to build back up and become a little more robust than it is right now. That would be really, really great.