Monday, May 30, 2016

Mental Health and Diabetes

As Mental Health Month comes to a close I wanted to share my thoughts on what mental health has to do with diabetes management.

In short: everything.

I believe it’s fair to say that the treatment of diabetes lends itself to behaviors that mimic or lead to the development of actual mental health disorders: eating disorders, anxiety, depression, you name it.  The personal responsibility for day-to-day management combined with the often-aired doom-and-gloom warnings of dire complications, significant cost of medications and supplies, lack of social understanding, and isolation is difficult to process into positivity.  Having diabetes can feel like walking an endless road full of deadly perils alone while armed only with a map written in Sanskrit.

The irony is that if you let all those things get to you, everything gets worse.  Ignoring the disease to save your sanity can be disastrous.  That’s why we need support to keep going. 

Maybe that comes from the online diabetes community, where we can be inspired by the encouraging voices and ambitious people living with diabetes.  Maybe it’s the annual conferences and workshops on diabetes that, among other benefits, showcase just a sampling of the sheer number of people involved with diabetes in some capacity.  Maybe it comes from friends or family members who listen when we vent on a bad day, gently ask us how it’s going when we’re quiet, and laugh, eat, and spend time with us with acceptance of who we are and whatever health conditions are a part of us.  Maybe it comes from local support groups that introduce us to other people with diabetes and their stories, where we can talk about our current challenges or topics not related to diabetes at all.

Finally, we can find that support from mental health professionals, because the truth is that the totality of the above options are sometimes not enough without the foresight to sort through and connect them.  It’s like a scatter plot graph of support—you get opinions and facts here and there, but it’s more helpful to understand the trends by drawing a line. People trained in mental health can help you sort through the mess of conflicting ideas, see the bigger picture, and find the back door to circular logic.  Those thoughts that accumulate in our heads like extra glucose in our veins—you’re not doing enough, you need to try harder, you're failing.  We’re in the trenches of diabetes management every hour of every day, and it’s eye-opening to get an outside view.

But even in the 21st century the relationship between mental and physical health still struggles for validation.  Research seems to recognize it more and more, but the stigma is still prevalent.  Perhaps a holistic approach to diabetes would mean people get the care they need to achieve better outcomes, saving health care money in the long run.

I wish that when people are diagnosed with diabetes they would be referred to a therapist as well as an endocrinologist.   I wish counseling was offered as readily as visits with nutritionists and diabetes educators when numbers aren’t where they should be.


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