Diabetes is a paradox in that it's both a well-known condition and a commonly misunderstood one. People might have a vague idea that it relates to blood sugar and insulin, but their knowledge often stops there. This lack of understanding often contributes to stigma surrounding diabetes.
Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that's viewed as a character flaw.
These are some misconceptions about diabetes that contribute to stigma:
- People with diabetes are to blame for their condition.
- Only someone who is overweight can develop diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetes is the “bad” kind because it’s the most severe.
- Type 2 diabetes is the “good” kind and isn’t that serious.
- Living with diabetes requires a person to eat a special diet.
- People with diabetes shouldn’t ever eat sugary foods or drinks.
- People who need insulin have failed to take proper care of themselves.
- There are certain jobs and activities that a person with diabetes can’t do.
- Diabetes can be contagious.
The truth is that diabetes is a complex condition with a variety of causes, and each person's experience with it is unique. There's no good or bad kind of diabetes, just as there isn't a one-size-fits-all way to manage it.
You may encounter misconceptions from family, friends, co-workers and others in your life. You might even harbor some false beliefs about yourself. Where you live, your cultural background and other personal factors also can affect your experience of stigma.
The first step might be to challenge false beliefs and misconceptions in your own mind. If you feel that you must be to blame for your condition, challenge the accuracy of that thought. The fact is that diabetes can affect anyone. There are many contributing factors to the disease that you can't control on your own.
And how can you respond when someone makes a thoughtless comment about your insulin pump? Or when someone questions whether it's really OK for you to add sugar to your coffee?
Understandably, your first reaction may be to feel irritated, hurt or angry. You might assume that the person is being intentionally insensitive or willfully ignorant. Rather than act on this assumption, try to keep an open mind. Most of the time, people mean well.
If you feel comfortable speaking up, consider politely countering a false belief with accurate information. Also point the person in the direction of reliable sources of information about your condition, such as a book or website. If it is someone close to you, you may consider inviting the person to come with you to an appointment with your primary diabetes care provider or another member of your diabetes care team.
If all else fails, you may have to accept that some people just aren't capable of changing their mindset. It's OK to protect yourself from negative or critical people, but don't let one person cause you to cast blame on yourself or doubt your ability to cope. Ultimately, this is about you being able to thrive and live well with diabetes.
Fight diabetes stigma with accurate information. Pick up a copy of Mayo Clinic The Essential Diabetes Book.
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