I’m a doctor living with diabetes, I learned 3 key points about diabetes and mental health

Half of adults are surprised that diabetes and mental health are connected

Diabetes stands as one of the foremost healthcare challenges today, affecting individuals across all age groups and genders. Managing diabetes requires constant attention, with daily decisions revolving around the impact of food, medications, and exercise on glucose control. Alongside the physical demands, there exists another facet of diabetes encompassing fatigue, stress, anxiety, distress, and burnout.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that individuals with diabetes are two to three times more likely to experience depression than those without the condition. Unfortunately, depression can have adverse effects on diabetes control and elevate the risk of complications, including eye, kidney, and heart diseases. Addressing both the physical and emotional aspects of diabetes is crucial for comprehensive healthcare management.

I have lived with Type 1 diabetes since the age of 5, and linking diabetes and mental well-being is a deeply personal experience for me. I’ve faced my fair share of frustration dealing with the unpredictability of diabetes in my daily life. While diabetes doesn’t define who I am, it is undeniably a part of me, an ever-present aspect that cannot be escaped.


Perhaps this intimate understanding of the challenges of diabetes has influenced my professional path as a physician specializing in diabetes. It has made me more attuned to recognizing the visual and verbal cues of mental illness in my patients. This aspect is also a daily topic of discussion in my role at Roche, where I can contribute my insights to address the holistic well-being of individuals living with diabetes.

In a recent survey named “Diabetes State of Mind,” we aimed to understand the awareness of the connection between diabetes and mental health among adults in the U.S., including those with diabetes. Despite ample published data on this subject, we were curious about the extent of this knowledge beyond the medical community.

The survey revealed that approximately half (51%) of respondents were surprised to learn about the connection between diabetes and mental health. This underscores a significant gap in awareness that needs attention, particularly since almost one-third of people with diabetes experience symptoms of emotional distress at some point in their lives, and nearly half of these cases go undetected. Addressing this awareness void is crucial for improving the holistic care and well-being of individuals living with diabetes.

It is crucial to initiate conversations about mental health and listen actively. Mental health issues are a secondary complication of diabetes and should be integrated into a more comprehensive approach to diabetes care.

Encouraging open dialogue will make it easier for individuals with diabetes to communicate with their families, friends, healthcare providers, and employers if they are not feeling well and seek the necessary assistance. Addressing issues such as diabetes distress is vital, as it can not only enhance emotional well-being but also contribute to improved diabetes control. Comprehensive care that encompasses both physical and mental health aspects is essential for the overall well-being of individuals living with diabetes.

1. Understand the link between diabetes and mental health 

The daily stress of managing diabetes can paradoxically make it more challenging to control. Stress triggers the release of hormones, leading to more pronounced fluctuations in blood sugar levels, thereby making it even harder to maintain levels within the target range.

Recurring or persistent diabetes distress can result in suboptimal self-care and increased hyperglycemia (high glucose levels), which is linked to a heightened risk of complications such as eye, kidney, and heart disease. Addressing the mental health aspect of diabetes is not only essential for emotional well-being but also plays a crucial role in achieving better glycemic control and reducing the risk of associated complications.

2. Recognize and understand the feelings people with diabetes may experience

Imagine a roulette wheel where the choices are depression, exhaustion, guilt, shame, anger, anxiety, and burnout. Patients express sentiments such as “I must have done something to deserve diabetes,” describing their experiences of diabetes burnout as coming in waves and leaving them feeling exhausted.

I understand these feelings intimately. Throughout my life with type 1 diabetes, I have personally experienced frustration from the unpredictable nature of diabetes. Almost every decision I make during the day has some impact on my glucose control, contributing to the complex emotional landscape that people with diabetes navigate.

3. Create an environment where people with diabetes are comfortable talking about their feelings

Understanding the barriers to seeking help is crucial. Respondents to the “Diabetes State of Mind” survey identified a range of factors impacting the mental well-being of individuals with diabetes. These include challenges in managing diet and exercise, achieving blood glucose goals, navigating significant life transitions, addressing intimacy issues, and feeling able to openly discuss diabetes and its management requirements at work.

When it comes to barriers to seeking help for mental health challenges, the survey highlighted issues such as affordability, embarrassment, fear of judgment from friends or family, and concerns about societal stigma.

In life, there are numerous factors, like receiving a diabetes diagnosis, that individuals cannot control. However, the key to triumphing over these challenges lies in managing one’s reactions and fostering supportive environments. This support network extends from family and doctors to employers, all of whom play a vital role in making individuals affected by diabetes feel understood and supported.

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The encouraging news is that creating safe spaces for people experiencing mental health challenges increases the likelihood that they will communicate their feelings and needs early. Clinicians who are more attuned to physical and verbal cues of mental illness in their patients may adopt a more holistic approach to diabetes treatment. This approach extends beyond addressing blood glucose levels and monitoring physical issues to include mental well-being.

With 38 million people living with diabetes in the U.S. and a growing crisis in mental health, especially among America’s teens and young adults, it’s reassuring to know that steps can be taken to give more people the support and help they need. This support not only addresses the physical aspects of diabetes but also makes a positive difference in mental well-being.

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