Diabetes is a serious, chronic, generally progressive health condition that affects an astounding 30 million Americans. An additional 84.1 million adults have pre-diabetes, a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, complications resulting from diabetes have caused more U.S. deaths than breast cancer and AIDS combined. Even so, there is a prevailing perception that diabetes is not a serious disease. Many people may feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty for having diabetes.
An online social media survey by the diaTribe Foundation—whose mission is to provide insight into diabetes—found that people with the disease often blame themselves for having caused it. And of 5,000 participants in a diaTribe survey, 76% of people with type 1 diabetes and 52% of people with type 2 diabetes reported feeling social stigma has had a negative impact on them. As many as 83% of parents of children with type 1 diabetes reported feeling blamed for causing their child’s disease.
People with diabetes are often stigmatized by the perception that diabetes is a disease for the obese and unhealthy. Survey responders who reported feeling stigmatized also reported a sense of personal failure.
Diabetes-related stigma can impact psychological and physical health. Studies have shown that health stigma is associated with depression, low self-esteem, embarrassment, loneliness and anger. It has been reported that people with diabetes often feel judged on what they eat, how they look and how much they exercise. In turn, they may feel uncomfortable to make food choices in front of others. Many reported doing certain things to hide their condition, such as avoiding social activities, skipping their medicines, not monitoring blood glucose regularly or injecting insulin only in public toilets or at home.
Setting the Record Straight
Knowing the facts about the disease may help to diffuse the stigma. Here are some important things to understand about diabetes:
- Diabetes is a serious disease. It was the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2015. Diabetes increases your risk of having heart disease or stroke. Other complications may include kidney failure, nerve damage, eye problems and foot problems.
- Eating too much does not cause diabetes. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not known. However, genetics and environmental factors may play a role. Type 2 diabetes is caused by family history and a combination of lifestyle factors.
- Risk factors for type 2 diabetes go beyond obesity. Though weight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, you don’t have to be overweight to develop type 2 diabetes. Many people who have diabetes are at a normal weight, while some people who are obese might never get diabetes. Other risk factors include: age, race, physical inactivity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Certain conditions can cause diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a common condition due to hormone changes in pregnant women. Other diseases including endocrine diseases and autoimmune disorders can cause diabetes. Certain medications may cause diabetes as well, including steroids or medicines to treat mood.
What You Can Do
Even though people with diabetes may experience stigma, there are ways to manage it:
- If you have diabetes, know that you have the power to make your life healthier, for longer. Speak to your doctor about what you can do and learn as much as you can about the disease and how it can be best managed. Consider joining a support group to help you make the necessary changes and overcome the negative stereotypes.
- Rather than hide your condition, maintain a positive attitude and ask friends and family to help you manage diabetes.
- Speak up about diabetes and educate others. Keep in mind that you cannot change everyone’s minds in one day.
- If someone you know has diabetes, be supportive by learning about the disease and encouraging them to take their medications, stay fit and see their doctors regularly.
Originally written: November 25, 2015
Reviewed and updated: November 14, 2017
- 1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014 National diabetes statistics report. Accessed: November 4, 2015.
- 2. American Diabetes Association. Statistics about diabetes. Accessed: November 4, 2015.
- 3. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes myths. Accessed: November 4, 2015.
- 4. Wolf A and Liu N. The numbers of shame and blame: how stigma affects patients and diabetes management. diaTribe Web site. Accessed: November 4, 2015.
- 5. Schabert J, Browne JL, Mosely K, Speight J. Social stigma in diabetes. Patient. 16 January 2013; 6(1): 1-10.
- 6. American Diabetes Association. What is gestational diabetes? Accessed: November 4, 2015.
- 7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Causes of diabetes. Accessed: November 4, 2015.