Mental Health Strain of Living with Diabetes During Covid

By Kimberley Hanson, Executive Director of Federal Affairs, Diabetes Canada

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Living with diabetes is a lifelong, 24-hour-a-day job with no days off. It’s a lifelong juggling act to balance diet, exercise, stress, medications and countless other factors. It has been estimated that those with type 1 diabetes must make 180 health-related decisions each and every day. The mental toll can be enormous.

That’s partly why there’s a strong two-way relationship between diabetes and mental health challenges. Approximately 30 per cent of those with diabetes report depression and, unfortunately, individuals with depression have a 40% – 60% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Mental health support is therefore a critical component of the care of those with diabetes, yet one that is not readily available for many.

As sobering as the above statistics are, it should be noted that those were the case before COVID-19 emerged. Since the beginning of 2020, people with diabetes have learned that they are at greater risk if they catch COVID: six times as likely to have a severe case of it and twelve times as likely to die of it than someone with no underlying medical conditions.

Everybody is feeling stressed due to COVID, so with a baseline of greater likelihood of mood disorder and greater risk if we catch COVID, it’s no wonder that people with diabetes are feeling extra anxious.

In a survey done in June 2020 to which 1,000 Canadians affected by diabetes responded, 40 per cent cited greater concerns about their mental health and 45 per cent their emotional health at this time. And yet 45 per cent weren’t sure where they would turn for mental health supports. 43 per cent reported feeling anxious and nervous and 37 per cent felt isolated and alone due to COVID. And those feelings seem to make it harder for some to manage their diabetes as actively as they’d like to, which puts their physical and mental health at even greater risk.

Neither COVID nor diabetes is going anywhere anytime soon, so we need to act now to better support the mental health of all Canadians, in particular those affected by diabetes. Here’s what we at Diabetes Canada are doing about it:

  1. We’re offering even more patient education and supports, including videos with expert advice on managing diabetes distress, online education classes for those with type 2 diabetes, and personalized medical advice from diabetes educators who can be reached at 1-800-BANTING.
  2. At our upcoming conferences we’ll have sessions to help people with diabetes and their health care providers learn more about how to manage diabetes distress, including a session by expert Dr. Michael Vallis at our No Limits with T1D conference in September.
  3. Our Diabetes 360° strategy recommends that all people with diabetes have access to interdisciplinary care teams that include mental health care providers. We’re calling on our federal government to join with provincial and territorial governments to implement this strategy and improve the care of those with diabetes in time for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin in Canada in 2021.
  4. We’re collaborating with JDRF Canada to bring to Canada specialized training in diabetes distress management for health care professionals wanting to provide more tailored supports for those with diabetes, which will greatly increase access of Canadians with diabetes to mental health care.

People with diabetes are by no means unique among Canadians needing additional mental health supports in these trying and unprecedented times. That’s why health policy makers need to ensure that our recovery plan is a comprehensive approach to treating both COVID and the underlying conditions that make Canadians more vulnerable to it.