Mental Health Blogs

Comparing Diabetes to Mental Illness

Warning: I hesitated to write a post on this topic because it is rather controversial. Because of this I want to stress that this is related to my experience and feelings on the comparison and is certainly open to debate.

How Do I Feel About Comparing Diabetes to Mental Illness?

In summary: I believe it is, for the most part, completely incorrect. Why do I feel this way? When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, age 12, I was told by numerous people that “it’s just like having Diabetes.” I needed to take my medication every day just as they did.

I had a friend who has Diabetes. I watched her take her insulin and wondered how she could use a needle every single day. I thought she was brave because she was brave.

But she seemed okay, once she was stabilized. She went back to school. I was locked in a psychiatric ward wondering when I might be let out. I was angry when told it was similar. It is not.

What Does Diabetes Have in Common With Mental Illness?

images-2In my opinion–and let me stress that this is mine–very little. I recognize that the pain when first diagnosed, the confusion, might be shared–but in completely different ways. Mental Illness undeniably carries more stigma. If you suffer from Diabetes you are probably not told that you are crazy and that you will not get better. You probably do not frequent a psychiatric hospital until stability is found.

The search for treatment is more comprehensive–usually. 1,000′s of possible medications. Often, an inability to find our way back into society. If I announce to a new friend that I have a mental Illness, the response is certainly different than if I were to state that I Have Diabetes. My illness lives in my mind. It hurts. But so does the diagnosis of every chronic illness.

As mentioned in a previous post–it’s important to remember our pain is not always unique. But it can feel like it is.

Why is Diabetes Compared to Mental Illness?

The goal? To make us feel less alone in our struggle. But I am sick and tired of my mental illness being compared to Diabetes. It is not Diabetes. It hurts–just like every other diagnosis. But I feel it hurts in different ways. It made me want to hide. It made me pretend I was not sick. I did not have the opportunity to sit in front of my psychiatrist, clear headed, and be told that my outcome would likely be excellent if I followed careful instructions.

Stop Comparing Diabetes to Mental Illness

I am pretty sure I am going to get, for lack of an intellectual term, some backlash for this but I wanted to write about it because it has made me angry in the past. I do not see the correlation, extending past the chronic nature, and issues/ feelings finding treatment and acceptance.

controversyWhen I am sick I am struggling to leave my home. To move. To eat. To find my way to my psychiatrist. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired sometimes. That’s the nature of the goddamn beast. When I was 12, young in my assumptions and illness, I stated, when told that it was just like Diabetes, that I would rather have Diabetes. This is not something I would ever state now, nor believe, as I have no experience in the illness, and understand that it can be lethal. But so is mental illness. The rate of suicide is terrifying. But still. Do not tell me it is similar. Do not tell other people it is similar. It usually does not make us feel any better. It is confusing.

Pain is Pain But Mental Illness is a Distinctly Different Pain

Remember: I am not minimizing a serious illness I am, instead, expressing how I feel about it. I wish I were, at such a young age, not told that my illness was similar to Diabetes. I wish I were told that it would take time, maybe a lot of time, to figure the mess out–but that I would find stability, recovery, in the end.

That being said, feel free to argue this topic– I’m listening.

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16 Responses to Comparing Diabetes to Mental Illness

  1. Chrisa says:

    so what would you compare it to?

    Both mental illness and diabetes are chronic, biological, life-long illnesses that require treatment. Both have symptoms when not regulated that include changes in mood and behavior. Both can lead to premature death of not treated.

    The argument of comparing mental illness to diabetes is one to try and educate others about it being a chronic disease, not necessarily the patient. Let’s be honest – you never see a movie or TV show that depicts someone with diabetes shooting up a place. By comparing it to another chronic yet treatable lifelong illness, the idea is to destigmatize mental illness – interrupt the correlation to violence and danger.

  2. awf72 says:

    It appears I am making the first comment here, and I hope it sets the tone for those that follow: I think your disclaimer makes clear that this is your position. You are neither judgmental nor argumentative in stating what you believe. The post is thoughtful and considerate of those with both mental illness and other illnesses, specifically diabetes.

    I am probably guilty of having made the comparison to another illness, including diabetes without really considering all of the ramifications of the comparisons.

    I agree with your statement regarding why the comparison to diabetes has been made, “To make us feel less alone,” and would add that it is an attempt to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. I also agree that it is a faulty comparison, especially after considering your experience.

    Thank yo so much for sharing your position. You are correct in stating that “Mental Illness is a distinctly *different* pain.” Instead of trying to compare it to something it is not, we should work harder to describe mental illness and to educate people about how it can be treated. Most importantly, more of us need to speak up about our own experiences, especially our triumphs! Kudos.

  3. Hi Natalie,

    Good points. For some people the illness is nothing like diabetes at all, but it’s something people say to give others hope and to reduce stigma. You know me, however, I prefer the truth to such things. So I’ll stand with you on this, much of the time mental illness isn’t like diabetes at all.

    - Natasha

  4. Sarah Olson says:

    Natalie,

    Interesting post! I have both mental illness and diabetes.

    Yes, both are chronic. There is also diabetic stigma — especially with Type 2 diabetes — because if you’re overweight the assumption is that you have it because you’re overweight and/or out of control with food. (Read: “It’s Your Own Fault.”) Not always true, but if you’re overweight there’s no way to “act skinny” to avoid the stigma. And actually getting skinny doesn’t always remove the diabetes.

    If people know you are diabetic, then every food choice *seems* to be at issue. It feels like you are being judged constantly, silently. (Sometimes not so silently!)

    But in my own experience, the biggest reasons I can compare them is that both have symptoms that can be completely random and changeable — and seldom in a good way; treatments seem to work one day, but not the next, leading to frustration and despair; both can provoke sudden life-threatening issues that feel so out of control; and both have a “lifelong” label staring at you whenever you feel at all down about them.

    And they are intertwined. Blood sugars can be thrown majorly out of whack by stress. Some psychiatric meds are known to increase blood sugars. Plus, major depression is increasingly being recognized and proactively treated as part and parcel of diabetes.

    I do understand why your life experiences led you to writing your post. I don’t think there’s any “right” or “wrong” here. I just offer you my life experiences as a different point of view.

    Thank you for your post!

  5. Great article until you took God’s name in vain, shame shame.

  6. Hi, Sarah:
    I really appreciate you pointing out the stigma with diabetes type 2. I had not thought of that—so glad you mentioned this. Again, you are correct, those will that illness are restricted from many of the “normal” food non-diabetics enjoy.

    I am so grateful you posted this is such an expressive and positive way. It has really made me think about my own views and that’s important. That we think about ourselves as not being so much different but similar. This reduces stigma.

    Thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Natalie

  7. Hi, Natasha:
    I agree. But reading Sarah’s post has really made me think. Let me know what you think of it—it’s very interesting.
    Sincerely,
    Natalie

  8. Hi, Awf72:
    Thank you for your comment. And I am glad you can both relate and point out the similarities. Yes, it is my position–I really wanted to stress this, if I had not, I would, in fact, be creating stigma.
    Sincerely,
    Natalie

  9. Hi, Chrisa:
    Thank you for your comment. I would not compare mental illness to any other chronic or non-chronic illness. I believe it to be important that we understand mental illness on its own level, though at the same time, understand that we are not unique in our pain. Pain is shared. I recognize they both have life-long symptoms requiring treatment but mental illness is viewed differently.

    Sarah made an excellent post that really made me think. Having said this, the comparism does nothing to destigmatize mental illness. The comparism is not viewed alongside in society.

    I appreciate your educated feedback,
    Natalie

  10. Elin Dalstål says:

    While I agree it don’t think is fair making a general comparison between mental illness and diabetes. I think that you at time can make a specific comparison with anything to illustrate some aspect of the illness.

    I could compare bipolar disorder to a roller coaster, for example, to explain the mood swings, even if roller coasters is fun and bipolar disorder isn’t all that fun. Or I could compare over training syndrome, with a laptop running to hot.

    And at times I think can compare mental illnesses with physical illness.

    For example, I do occasionally compare a panic attack to a astma attack.

    “Panic attacks are a bit like asthma attacks. They can come suddenly, the one having them feel like they might die, and their hearts is racing, they can ahve trouble breathing, and thier body is panicking. But if you see one having one, give them space to breath, stay calm, try to calm them down and get them to breathe slowly, until is passes.”

    And I would in some instances, when explaining something specific about mental illness compare with type 1 diabetes in some specific aspect. Like to explain that even if lifestyle factors is important and might improve and stabilize my condition, I will still need lifelong medication.

  11. Pam Franklin says:

    Hmmm. I am both diabetic and bipolar, and I tend to just take my medications and ignore both until something happens that makes me pay attention to them.

    Both do different things to me. Diabetes makes me tired, thirsty, and cranky when it is out of control. Bipolar tends to make me think about suicide when it is out of control.

    I think there are similarities, but I agree, the stigma is much worse with the bipolar thing.

  12. anita99 says:

    YES ! a psychiatrist once said this, regarding my son’s alleged schizophrenia.
    well they ve been treating him for over 15 years and he has got WORSE.
    was previously a brilliant young man at Oxford University, now a shambling wreck with voice slurred by medication. I quite often think it would be better if he had died.

    NOT diabetes at all, diabetes is much simpler and is physical, only involves one person. Emotions are VERY catching, everybody around a ‘mental’ patient is freaked out, watching for disaster, and ensuing disaster of one form or another ensues. Psychosis is fear, and the treatment is more fear.

    there is only madness, no mad person. When police call on me at 3 am to take away my son, I am mad. Personally, I would prefer rather to die than have some ****** shrink dicatate my life, fill me with drugs that dont work,lock me in a crap institution.

    Diabetes drugs actually work, psychiatric ones dont. they are just a cosh for the convenenience of the bystanders who are afraid of what the mad person might do. Duh. if they worked, and people felt BETTER, they would take them and there would be any need for controversy.

    you wrote a very good post, thanks.

  13. Hi, Anita:
    I agree with you, it is very different, but I do think that Diabetes affects the entire family/support group not just the individual. Diabetes can be lethal; particularly in juvenile cases–much like a juvenile diagnosis of mental illness.

    I am sincerely sad to hear of your son. I might be hard for people to read “I quite often think it would be better if he had died.” I understand this. My family understands this. They could sense my acute pain, with no promise of ever getting better, of having a good life. But believe it is possible, please. I am sure you tell your son it is as well.

    My parents’ have had to call the police as well. I will not go into details because I feel shame associated with it, but mental illness can spur terrifying things like these. As terrifying for the parent as the son/daughter who suffers.

    I really appreciate your comment Anita and hang in there,
    Natalie

  14. Hi, Pam:
    You offer a really great perspective as someone who deals with both issues. Both illnesses cause unwanted, frightening, symptoms. And those as you mention, “…do different things.”Diabetes is more physical while mental illness mental. Both are painful. And stigma, I don’t think we can argue that bipolar has more.
    Thank you for the fantastic comment and sharing your unique perspective,
    Natalie

  15. Hi, Elin:
    Yes, you can make general comparison but I do believe these are self-limiting. I love your comparisons—they define the illness in many ways. The roller coaster, swings from high and low, all that not-so-fun stuff stuff we live with.

    I suffer from panic attacks and asthma–So I understand this. Sometimes, a little of topic here, but I use my inhaler when I’m having a panic attack—I pretend it might work though asthma, as you know, is not the issue!

    Thank you for the comment!
    Natalie

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