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New research reveals impact of stigma and discrimination on people with diabetes

20 November, 2023

Interview by Rawan Saadi, adapted by Kate Walker

Senior Professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland, Dr Anna Serlachius, says misinformation and negative language surrounding the medical conditions adversely affect diabetics.

One in three people have been discriminated against due to their diabetes, according to new international research. 

Senior Professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland, Dr Anna Serlachius, was one of more than 50 academics, clinicians, and people with lived experience who worked on the research and made a pledge to eliminate diabetes stigma. 

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.

While type 1 diabetes is a life-long, auto-immune condition where people must replace insulin to survive, type 2 diabetes usually develops in adults, who have become insulin-resistant and cannot produce enough insulin to keep them healthy. Gestational diabetes occurs when the body cannot make enough insulin during pregnancy.

Type 2 diabetes is the only type of diabetes linked to, but not always caused by obesity. Māori, Pacific, and South Asian people are disproportionately affected by type 2 diabetes and are more likely to develop complications from the condition. 

Dr Serlachius, told 95bFM’s The Wire that there are a lot of misconceptions about diabetes. 

“There is this false idea that people who live with diabetes are to blame because they made unhealthy choices, and this is what has caused their diabetes.”

“Diabetes is a lot more complicated than that.”

As well as one out of three diabetics facing discrimination; unfair treatment due to their condition, the new research published in the medical journal, The Lancet, found that four out of five adults suffering from both type one and two diabetes have experienced stigma; negative stereotypes and attitudes people have towards those with diabetes. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of these negative attitudes are perpetuated in the news, in social media, and in movies,” says Dr Serlachius. 

But irrespective of the type of diabetes people have, Dr Serlachius said her research showed the stigma they experience is often the same.

“People face discrimination in the workplace, but also in some cultures, there is a lot of discrimination in their communities.”

Dr Serlachius says encountering stigma and discrimination in their day-to-day lives can lead to negative health outcomes.

“They might be ashamed to eat in public, inject insulin in public, or test blood sugar levels in public, which are all really important self-care behaviours that people with diabetes need to do all the time.”

“Stigma leads to poor mental health consequences for people living with diabetes. And we know that worse mental health outcomes can also impact people's physical health outcomes.”

Dr Serlachius encourages people to avoid using language that “blames the individual and makes them feel like they failed” when talking about diabetes, to better support those with diabetes to manage their condition.

“Stigma can have negative unintended consequences. So it is really important that we think about the language we use.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air