Depression: another big D word and largely silent, invisible illness. Standing alone it can be emotionally devastating and incredibly difficult to cope with. With diabetes involved, depression is often given further means to fester and grow quite dramatically, with stable blood sugar control often overlooked or given less attention than it needs to have. Most recent studies show that depression is twice more commonly found in individuals that have diabetes than those without. It has also been reported that around one in three people with long term chronic conditions experience poor psychological well-being, compared to one in four within the general healthy population.
But why? And how do we address it? Uncontrolled diabetes can be problematic enough to treat, especially with many health practitioners not addressing the emotional roots of the diagnosis at all. A dominating precense of depression can cause the pro-active approach a diabetic needs to take can fall easily by the wayside, with self-care becoming a burden. Of course, such despondency can often be a part of someone experiencing diabetes with an eating disorder as well. Depression, diabetes and an eating disorder make up a dangerous mix whereby each condition can be fuelled by the others, maintaining a cycle that is difficult to break out of.
Despite the high numbers of diabetics that also experience depression, any information available upon diagnosis is sorely lacking. You are typically given all the education that you need in relation to what insulin to take, what to do in cases of hypo or hyperglycaemia and which snacks are better than others, but what about the emotional issues? It seems quite rare that any insight or support is provided to acknowledge what coping with diabetes can do to your head.
Undoubtedly the realisation that type-one-diabetes is an incurable, unrelenting illness which will be with you for life can be difficult to accept at diagnosis. Then there's the possible perceived alienation from peers, the confusing and unanswerable question of 'why me?', the loneliness and isolation of it all. Furthermore, there is the urge to be free and able to do everything your friends can do without having to stop and test your blood/inject/eat every few hours. Such yearning can trigger a sense of denial and rejection of acceptance: what blind-sighted health professionals can term “non-compliance”. It can also be hugely challenging to deal with the influence of mixed media messages that can spread ignorance to the public and the barrage of unhelpful, intrusive comments that may come from the people around you. Nobody seems to tell you about any of this in the beginning.
Of course, this isn't always the case, some people do have good accounts of the process, where the right resources are offered and they feel supported. However, for every success story, there seems to be several other cases whereby a newly diagnosed diabetic is given a few leaflets, a clinic appointment in four months, and is then sent on their way.
Diabetes UK explains the following on their website: “Everyone reacts differently when they hear the news that they have diabetes. You may be initially overwhelmed, shocked, afraid, angry and anxious. Some people go through a stage very similar to mourning – as though they are grieving for lost health. “
Diabetes can also become a tool for self-harm, with suicidal behaviours complicating the issue even further. As well as the highly dangerous practice of omitting or reducing insulin which can be largely associated with an eating disorder, a sufferer of depression may misuse their medication in other harmful ways. This could be by overdose or purposely prolonging a precarious state of hypoglycaemia. Depression can jump on diabetes as a way of pushing the boundaries of life to a desperate and potentially lethal knife edge.
Patience Blystone spoke of how at the height of her illness depression provided her with yet another tool to hurt herself with: “Along with my eating disorder being shown through poor diabetes control, my depression has done the same.... Whether it's me screaming out for help or to be noticed, punishing myself because I feel I deserve that, or just neglect because I can't muster the energy to take care of my body.”
Talking about how she is now able to manage her depression more appropriately through an on-going process of recovery, Patience said: “I've coped with it by finding out what makes me depressed. I am a huge perfectionist, have terrible anxiety and in general am very pessimistic towards my own life. By realizing that setbacks won't ruin my life or make people dislike me, I've managed to always feel the need to be perfect. I can tell myself 'Well if this goes wrong I have THESE alternatives' and move on. My anxiety is a daily battle of tiny bouts of courage, tears, yoga, and just pushing past my comfort zone. And the being negative is just a day by day thing. I find if I enjoy the small things and try not to focus on the hard problems for too long it lessens.
Lucy O'Meara also believes that diabetes has played a role in the development of her depression. She talks of how the condition “majorly decreases (her) motivation which makes relapsing more likely and diabetes control go out the window.” Kayleigh Lovell, who was diagnosed with both type-one-diabetes at the age of six believes her own severe depression started gathering roots at the same age. “I find basic tasks like brushing my teeth or getting dressed almost impossible so taking care of my health is difficult. My eating disorder, OCD and depression have always prevented me from making my health a priority.” she says, “I often feel like I am committing a slow suicide.”
This is not to say that advances in treatment settings are not happening. Recent years have seen the link between psychology and diabetes being considered a lot more has been previously seen. Reports on the association of disordered eating have been a small part of this. Most significantly the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) released new guidelines which outline the importance of psychological support for children and young people with diabetes. They also updated their existing recommendations concerning this area in relation to adults.
But we need to continue making a noise. Progress is being made in ripples but we need a crashing wave. If you are reading this and suffering from depression please speak out and don't be afraid. There is nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of. Vocalise your distress, shout about it if you must. Go to your GP, diabetic nurse, consultant or even a friend who can advocate on your behalf because you shouldn't have to suffer alone. Nobody should have to suffer alone or in silence. You deserve to be heard.
By Claire Kearns.