How Diabetes Impacts The Mental Health Of Patients – And Their Loved Ones

"You grieve for the life you thought you were going to have."

Diabetes may be a physical condition, but it’s impacting the mental health of patients as well as those who care for them.

More than three quarters (76 per cent) of people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes report experiencing psychological distress, such as stress, anxiety attacks or depression, a new survey of 831 patients has revealed.

A separate study, of more than 7,000 people, also found parents and carers of children or adults with diabetes experience emotional or mental health problems. Three quarters (77 per cent) of parents and carers reported “sometimes” or “often” feeling down because of a family member’s diabetes.

Both studies were conducted for World Diabetes Day, which is marked annually on 14 November.

There are 3.7 million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes, characterised by having too much glucose in your blood – about 90 per cent are estimated to have type 2 and 10 per cent have type 1 diabetes.

The survey of patients was conducted by Dexcom, a company that develops and manufactures glucose managing systems for diabetes patients. It found three in five (60 per cent) of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes said they worried more about the risk of developing further health complications from diabetes, such as blindness and limb amputations.

Meanwhile over half (52 per cent) said that the prospect of having to regularly check their glucose levels caused them to experience prolonged feelings of stress, anguish, and anger.

Natalie Balmain, 32, from Manchester, told HuffPost UK that being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 20 had a “profound impact” on her mental health.

“To be told that you will live the rest of your life with a condition that requires so much self-management and that could easily be fatal on any given day is a lot to deal with, and more so when it impacts on the life you had planned for yourself,” she said. “I was a successful dancer at the time of diagnosis, but my initial poor control led to several seizures from hypoglycaemia [low blood sugar] while dancing, and I became too scared to dance, prematurely ending my dance career.”

She described feeling “worthless” as a result of her condition, saying “nobody tells you that it is OK to grieve for the life you thought you were going to have”.

“I felt hopeless, and honestly didn’t care if I lived or died, ultimately meaning I didn’t manage my condition and put myself at prolonged risk of complications,” she added.

Natalie Balmain
Natalie Balmain

The online survey of friends and family of those with diabetes was conducted by the charity Diabetes UK. It found more than a quarter (27 per cent) said that if they could change one thing about the healthcare their loved ones receive for diabetes, it would be to receive more information and support to manage the condition day-to-day.

Carers of children with type 1 diabetes told Diabetes UK it was challenging when people around them did not understand the realities of their child’s condition, and said that emotional support would reduce the strain on them to ‘appear strong’ at all times.

Similarly carers of older people with type 2 diabetes said that having the opportunity to be themselves, not just a carer, was important for their wellbeing, as well as support from more experienced peers.

For Natalie, actively engaging with her diabetes and other people with the condition has improved her mental health. “I also find for me that exercise and generally taking care of myself as best I can to have a big impact on my emotional wellbeing,” she said.

Dan Howarth, head of care at Diabetes UK, recommended that parents and carers get clued up on the condition to ease their own worries.

“But with the right support and access to information, families and carers can help people with diabetes avoid devastating complications, such as amputations, blindness, kidney failure and heart disease,” he said.