What Is the Psychological Impact of Type 1 Diabetes?

Aude Lecrubier

March 03, 2022

France — "Living with diabetes is not smooth sailing…From the onset of the disease in a child or adolescent through all the days that follow, there is nothing ordinary about it," according to Aide aux Jeunes Diabétiques (AJD), a French association providing support for children and adolescents with diabetes. What is the psychological impact of the disease on patients and their loved ones? When we look at the life of a person with diabetes, are there key stages that call for more focused attention? Nadine Hoffmeister, a psychologist at AJD, offers support to patients with diabetes and their parents as they navigate and deal with in-patient treatment for the disease. She recently spoke with Medscape Medical News.

Medscape: Are psychological issues more prevalent in patients with type 1 diabetes (T1D) than in the general population?

Hoffmeister: Having a chronic disease is not something that should be viewed as automatically making the person more susceptible to psychological issues. When we think about kids with T1D, it's important to keep in mind that the risk for depression and the risk for eating disorders are, in general, higher in adolescence.

Of course, it can't be denied that having diabetes can make one more vulnerable to experiencing mental distress. Clearly, the risk for eating disorders is there, given the constant focus on managing one's diet. And there's a greater risk for depression, because life with diabetes can really be trying. That said, how much impact the disease has depends in large part on the environment, the monitoring, and the collaboration of everyone involved.

Medscape: Are there key stages in the life of patients with T1D that call for targeted psychological support? 

Hoffmeister: The thing about T1D is that it can affect anyone at any age — a small child, a teenager, a young adult. So, in that sense, all 'firsts' are key stages. They start, of course, with the first 'first': diagnosis. For children diagnosed at an early age, there's the first day of nursery school or kindergarten, the first piece of birthday cake. Then we get to kids starting middle school and high school, places where they're now left to their own devices. This is when, for the first time, they'll have an opportunity to take a trip without their parents and siblings, to go to a party.

And then, there's the first time using a particular treatment. For example, switching from injections to a pump requires not only an adjustment in terms of physically operating a new device, but a reorientation in terms of mentally settling into a new routine, a new way of administering medication, and so on. They have to learn how to get along with this machine that's attached to them all the time. They have to view it as being a part of them, view it as a partner, a teammate, a friend. It's not that easy.

Later on, one of the major stages is, of course, adolescence. Critical developments in the separation–individuation process are taking place. They start to feel the need to break free, to become autonomous, as they seek to fully come to terms with their disease.

Parents usually worry about this stage, adolescence. They're scared that their child won't be as vigilant, that they'll be scatterbrained or careless when it comes to staying on top of all those things that need to be done to keep T1D under control. Most of the time, this stage goes better than they thought. Still, the fact remains that it's difficult to find a happy medium between adolescence and diabetes. Indeed, there's a bit of a paradox here. On the one hand, we have adolescence which, by definition, is a time of spontaneity, independence, of trying new things. On the other hand, we have diabetes and its limits and constraints, its care and treatment, day in and day out. We have to pay close attention to how the child navigates and makes their way through this stage of their life.

During adolescence, there's also a heightened awareness and concern about how others look at you, see you — everywhere, not only in classrooms and hallways. If the way someone looks at them seems aggressive or intrusive, the child may start to feel scared. The risk then becomes that they'll start feeling awkward or ashamed or embarrassed. We have to keep this in mind and help lead the child away from those feelings. Otherwise, they can end up with low self-esteem, they can start to withdraw.

It can sometimes get to the point where they choose to neglect their treatment so as to conform to the way others see them. Adults can easily lose sight of these kinds of things. So, it's imperative that we talk to the child. If they're having trouble following their treatment plan, maybe there's something going on at school. So, let's ask them: "How do you like your classes and teachers?" "How are you doing with your injections? Are you finding that they're getting easier and easier to do?" And always keeping in mind the real possibility that the child may be feeling awkward, ashamed, embarrassed.

Medscape: Is enough being done to pick up on and address these children's needs?

Hoffmeister: I think that these efforts are becoming more and more widespread. Still, there are disparities. When it comes to patients with chronic diseases, it's not always easy to implement mental health care into the treatment plan. In some cases, there might not be a hospital nearby. And as we know, there are no spots available in medical and psychiatric centers. Of course, outside of hospital settings, we're seeing the unfortunate situation of fewer and fewer middle schools and high schools having nurses on site.

And then, what options there are for getting support vary greatly from hospital to hospital. Some don't have psychologists. Others have full schedules and not enough staff. That said, more and more teams are trying to set up regular appointments right from the time of diagnosis. This is a really good approach to take, even though the circumstances may not be ideal. After all, the person has just been told that they have diabetes; they're not really in the best state of mind to have any kind of discussion.

Medscape: And so, it makes sense that AJD would offer the kind of mental health support that you're now providing there.

Hoffmeister: Exactly. My position was created 4 years ago. I'm not at the hospital. I'm an external. The goal is to be able to offer this psychological support to everyone. I do consultations over the phone so that no matter where a person is in France, they'll have access to this support. There's great demand, and the requests are only increasing. I think this has to do with the fact that people are being diagnosed younger and younger. It's a very complicated situation for the parents. No matter how young their child is, they want to get that support underway as soon as possible.

Medscape: You speak about the patients getting support. But doesn't some kind of help have to be given to their parents and loved ones as well?

Hoffmeister: Yes. I'd say that 60% to 70% of the work I do at AJD is for parents. I also have some older adolescents and some younger kids whom I call to keep up with. But children aren't very interested in discussing plans over the phone. For parents, the thing about diabetes is that they find themselves in these situations where their child is in the hospital for, say, a week, then is discharged, and all of a sudden, they find themselves at home as the ones in charge of their child's treatment.

When it's a little kid, the parents are the ones who are taking care of all the steps, the injections, the pumps. They're dealing with the distress of a child going through episodes of nocturnal hypoglycemia. They're experiencing varying degrees of anxiety in carrying out all of these responsibilities and, at the same time, the bond they have with their child is becoming stronger and stronger. So, there's that anxiety. In this situation, parents may also feel a need for control. And they're also feeling exhausted; the mental load of dealing with diabetes is very, very intense. To work through all this, many parents reach out for psychological support.

Then later on, when the child has gotten a little older, the parents find it difficult to get to the point of being able to just let go. But once the parents get to know their child better, get to know how their child experiences diabetes, they'll get to that point. What they come to learn is that the child can take care of things, the child can feel what's going on in their body, the child can be trusted.

Medscape: How can we help and support children with diabetes?

Hoffmeister: One of the most important things is to teach the child to come to terms with the disease and how it affects their body. In other words, the idea here is to adapt diabetes to one's life, not the other way around. The goal is to not let diabetes take over.

When faced with standardized medical protocols, during a session with a psychologist, the child can talk about their life, give an idea of what a day in their life looks like. For example, the school cafeteria is a place where children get the opportunity to socialize and interact with their peers. We want to have that lunch period be as normal as possible for the child with diabetes. In some schools, lunchtime becomes a challenge. So, not seeing any other solution, mom stops working so the child can come home to eat. These are the kinds of situations where efforts to make the child feel included have failed. They're tough to deal with, all around. And so this is why we do all we can to keep things as normal as possible for these children.

Medscape: What would you say is the one initiative out there that's giving young patients with T1D the most help and support?

Hoffmeister: AJD offers stays at Care Management and Rehabilitation (SSR) sites. For kids and teenagers with diabetes, these places are like summer camps where every aspect of treatment is taken care of.

There's a medical team monitoring their disease and a team of counselors always on hand. It's a time when children may very well bring up things that are on their mind. All in all, the children have a safe and welcoming environment where treatment is provided and they can feel free to open up and talk.

If a problem crops up, I'm always on call to jump online. And throughout the stay, the medical team is keeping in touch to discuss the child's care.

AJD is also an interdisciplinary association. We regularly organize practice exchange groups that bring together healthcare professionals and families from all over France. In this way, we're able to collaborate and come up with resources, such as information packets and kits — for the newly diagnosed, for those starting intensive insulin therapy, and so on. These resources take into account medical protocols related to diabetes. They're also designed with family life in mind. And having this set of resources works toward standardizing treatments.

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