This article is part of our library of Mental Health resources. Type 1 isn’t just about counting carbs, checking BGLs and administering insulin. The disease takes an emotional and psychological toll as well. Check out other clinical information and personal stories about Mental Health.
If you’re going to be caring for a person with Type 1 diabetes with regard to their mental health, there are some important things to know about the various emotional impact of having T1D and the many potential outcomes.
What is Type 1 diabetes?
First and foremost, it is pertinent to have a strong grasp on what exactly the disease is in order to empathize on an emotional level.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease which happens when the body’s immune system starts attacking part of its own pancreas, destroying the insulin-producing cells. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar and without it, sugar stays in the blood and can cause serious damage to organ systems, causing people to experience diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Scientists have not yet identified one specific cause.
Living with T1D is a full-time balancing act requiring constant attention to avoid long-term damage done by hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and acute, life-threatening hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
How is T1D managed?
Unlike certain cases of Type 2 diabetes, people with Type 1 diabetes cannot manage their condition by a simple modification in diet or exercise, or by taking a pill. People with T1D are insulin dependent, which means that they must take insulin every day to survive. This can be done a few different ways.
- Injections with syringes
- Injections with insulin pens
- Insulin pumps
Counting carbohydrates is a large part of T1D management. Depending on each person’s carb:insulin ratio as recommended by an endocrinologist, a person with Type 1 must always calculate the amount of carbs per meal and give an insulin dose accordingly. This can at times be taxing, confusing and frustrating.
The highs & lows
People with Type 1 diabetes quite commonly experience both high and low blood sugar levels due to either a lack of insulin in the body (hyperglycemia/high blood sugar), or too much insulin in the body (hypoglycemia/low blood sugar.) Both scenarios can be stressful and frightening, both physically and mentally.
- Symptoms of high blood sugar can include: fatigue, nausea, increased thirst, confusion, headache, frequent urination
- Symptoms of low blood sugar can include: hunger, dizziness, shaking, change in mood, rapid heartbeat, confusion, fatigue, loss of consciousness
In severe cases, if not treated, both can lead to coma or death.
Mental health issues that can stem from having and managing Type 1 diabetes can include:
Managing T1D can make someone feel very isolated, misunderstood and vulnerable. The daily battles can certainly lead to sadness and an overall feeling of hopelessness.
Learn more about Depression and Its Relationship to Type 1.
High blood sugar, low blood sugar, other serious diabetes complications, and added stress as it relates to managing the disease while navigating other life concerns weigh heavy on the minds of many people with T1D, making them anxious on a daily basis.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Managing Type 1 diabetes each day requires a great deal of attention and many factors. There are always several balls in the air, so to speak. Getting into a routine when it comes to taking insulin, testing blood sugar levels, and carb counting can sometimes lead to obsessive behavior.
- “Diabetes burnout”/Denial
Diabetes burnout occurs when managing T1D becomes too much for a person with the disease. There are so many ups and downs each day, and the struggle, at times seems more severe than others. When burnout occurs, the sense of denial experienced leads to neglect of all T1D management.
Diabulimia is an eating disorder that some people with Type 1 experience in relation to issues with body image. Not to be confused with bulimia (the eating disorder characterized by binging and purging). People suffering from diabulimia deliberately give themselves less insulin in order to lose weight. Lack of insulin causes severe high blood sugar, which then leads to weight loss (and other life-threatening complications.)
Type 1 diabetes affects those who are diagnosed in many different ways. Each day can bring new struggle and hardship, as with any disease or illness. No one person will react the same way to their daily T1D management.
Read Finding a Diabetes Mental Health Provider by Mark Heyman (PhD, CDE). Know a great provider already? Recommend a Mental Health Care Provider for Type 1 Diabetes.