News • 19 Jul 2019

Diabetes and mental health

According to Diabetes Australia, up to 50% of people with diabetes are thought to also have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. This compares to approximately 20% of the general population who are thought to experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. But what is the link between diabetes and mental illness?

Studies have identified that individuals diagnosed with diabetes experience a much higher risk of developing depression in their lifetime. 

The constant need to be careful with foods, check blood glucose levels and take insulin can be emotionally draining and lead to mental illnesses.

Dr Steven James, of USC, said: “Following a diagnosis of diabetes, there may be a need to adapt to prevent the onset and/or progression of complications. Challenges may include the changing of dietary habits and physical activity, monitoring of blood glucose and medication administration. There may also be concern around future health and financial burden. Collectively, such aspects may negatively impact mental health.”

Research suggests that diabetes doubles the risk of depression compared to those without diabetes. 

Likewise, it seems that those who already have a mental illness such as depression can be more at risk of starting to develop diabetes.

Ryan Dixon, Psychologist at the Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield said: “Given that mental illness can make everyday tasks more difficult, activities such as physical exercise and healthy eating can often take a back seat. Therefore those experiencing mental illness can be more at risk of developing diabetes.”

What is diabetes?

Diabetes effects the body’s ability to maintain healthy glucose levels in the blood. For our bodies to function properly, we need to convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy. 

Insulin is produced in the pancreas and this is what’s needed to convert glucose into energy. 

Diabetes is when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or when it produces no insulin at all.

If the body is not doing this effectively, instead of being turned into energy, the glucose remains in the blood resulting in high blood glucose levels.

As well as mental illness, diabetes can cause serious physical health complications too, such as:

  • Blindness in adults
  • Heart and blood vessel disease
  • Stroke
  • Nerve Damage
  • Kidney failure
  • Limb amputations

The two main types of diabetes are called Type 1 and Type 2. 

Daniel Shyhun, Dietitian at the Blue Care Live Well Centre, said: “While Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition and not linked with modifiable lifestyle factors, Type 2 is a progressive condition is associated with modifiable lifestyle factors. In Australia, males are at a greater risk of developing diabetes than females. Rates of Type 2 also increase with family history of diabetes, increasing age, being overweight or obese, having high blood pressure, being from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background or from a Pacific Island, Indian subcontinent or Chinese cultural background, and being diagnosed with gestational diabetes during pregnancy.”

How to get help with diabetes and mental illness

Good management of diabetes can reduce the possibility of experiencing depression or other mental illnesses.

Ryan Dixon, Psychologist at the Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield, said: “If you already have depression, good diabetes management will help lessen the negative impacts it can have. Depression is no different to any of the other complication of diabetes. It is a genuine illness for which you need to seek help and support from health professionals. 

“If you have diabetes and are experiencing a mental health issue, you can try: going to a doctor or other health professional, getting involved in social activities, engaging in regular moderate physical activity, learning about depression and diabetes, eating healthily and including a wide variety of nutritious foods, achieving and maintaining healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake, getting help, support and encouragement from family and friends, or asking your doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.”

From a dietitian perspective, Daniel has worked with some people who have Type 1 diabetes, and said: “They are quite often overwhelmed and sometimes become disengaged, particularly with the daily tasks of injections, testing, treating low blood sugars, monitoring and eating healthily. People with Type 2 diabetes can also feel quite overwhelmed after the initial diagnosis. However, with a number of visits with a dietitian and other primary health providers, a patient’s fears will ease as they gain more knowledge and confidence that they can manage their blood sugar levels with a combination of a healthy balanced diet, physical activity and the correct diabetes medications.”

Kristianne Jarman, of the University of the Sunshine Coast said: “Speaking from personal experience (Type 1 for 32 years), I experience anxiety on a daily basis, due to the constant relentless nature of Type 1 diabetes. On the one hand you have a fear of hypos to contend with whilst adjusting to the fact that you may face long term diabetes related complications on the other end of the scale. This ongoing fear can often be intense, especially during periods of ordinary life related stress or feeling unwell. I do feel that psychological input with regards to overall diabetes management is extremely important and beneficial.”

Get support

Diabetes Australia:

The Open Minds Mental Health Hub at Morayfield:

Blue Care Live Well:

USC Clinical Trials:

About the Health Hub Morayfield

The Health Hub Morayfield is 13,000m² state of the art health and wellbeing facility, with a broad network of integrated health, education and research service providers, all under one convenient roof. Providers in the Centre include a large General Practice, Minor Accident & Illness Centre, mental health services, relationship counselling services, X-Ray & Imaging facilities, dental, clinical trials centre, brain treatment centre, pathology, hearing services, as well as a rehabilitation clinic, pharmacy, Mum & Bub Hub, and an onsite café.

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