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Over the weekend, I could not stop thinking about the words ‘from’ and ‘with’, specifically when used before the word COVID. The reason for this is that there seems to have been a subtle shift in the language used by NSW government and health officials when speaking about people dying during this wave. You see, rather than saying people are dying FROM COVID, they’ve started to say dying WITH COVID.

It means something different. It suggests that the person didn’t die from the virus, but from other factors. This is on top of the over-emphasis made at pressers about how people who have died have underlying conditions (I wrote about that last week). The implication is that the person was already unwell; that they were dying anyway.

I know I’m a little fragile at the moment, but not fragile enough to not get fired up when I see language being used in a harmful way, and negatively framing people with chronic health conditions. And so, today, I wrote to the Premier of NSW about this issue.

Here’s what I wrote:

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Dear Premier Berejiklian

My name is Renza Scibilia, and I am not one of your constituents. I don’t live in NSW, so you may be inclined to simply disregard this message. I hope you (or rather, someone from your team) will read it, because I know that what I have to say is relevant to many people in your state. In fact, I am sure that you have heard similar sentiments from people in NSW and I am adding my voice to that choir.

I don’t envy the position you are in right now and I’m not here to complain or credit the work you are doing regarding the current serious wave of COVID-19 in your state.

But I would like to make comment on something that is very close to my heart and an area in which I have some experience – health communications.

Communication matters. The words that people use are sometimes employed flippantly and sometimes they are employed deliberately. Either way, they are important. I fear that a change in the words you and your team have recently started is a deliberate move and I believe it is harmful to people like me. When speaking about the tragic deaths of people during this COVID-19 wave, you are now saying they die WITH COVID-19 rather than FROM it.

It may seem ridiculous to draw attention to words that appear so immaterial. Except, of course, they are not immaterial at all. And I believe that the shift is deliberate. And it does a great disservice to the people to whom you are referring.

I live with type 1 diabetes. It’s undoubtedly a serious condition, and one that I have had to manage for the last 23 years. On a day-to-day basis, I do quite impressive mathematical calculations as I measure glucose levels, dose insulin, consider my activity, and monitor my stress levels. This takes time – a lot of time. Outside of diabetes-specific care, I eat well, walk 10K steps a day, and manage my wellbeing as best I can.

Beyond what I do each day, I remain on top of my longer-term diabetes and overall health. I never miss screening checks – diabetes or otherwise; I have annual health checks and I can tell you my BP, resting heart rate, HbA1c, lipids and cholesterol. Most people my age are not this switched on with their health and wellbeing, and because I am, I can confidently say that I am healthier than a lot of people my age.

And so, when you use sweeping statements suggesting that if someone like me was to be diagnosed with, and die from COVID-19, that the reason for my death is my health condition you are not correct. I am not already dying from diabetes.

There is a difference between dying FROM COVID-19 and dying WITH covid. Your change in language is an insult and is upsetting to people like me and it is also misleading. I am healthy, I am fit and if I got covid and died, it would be because of the virus not because of my type 1 diabetes.

I urge you to reconsider how you are speaking about people like me. It is heartbreaking for us to know that in the minds of some, our lives, and our deaths, are so easily explained away. While I am sure your intention is not to make us feel as though we are nothing more than collateral, that is how it sounds. The language you are using frames us and our health conditions as being to blame. It makes us sounds and feel as though we already have one foot in the grave and I can assure you that is not the case.

Language matters, words matter. Please, please be careful when selecting yours.

Sincerely,

Renza Scibilia
Melbourne

At the last IDF Congress, I was invited to be part of the first panel on the opening morning of the meeting. It was all about diabetes and technology. Before the questions, the moderator, my friend Kyle Jacques Rose, asked everyone to introduce themselves. When it got to my turn, I said who I was and then shamelessly and unapologetically said I was the most important person the stage (along with Kyle and Manny Hernandez, who also live with diabetes). I remember looking steadily out into the audience as I made my claim to see the response. There was some who looked taken aback. And then some who cheered (thanks to the other PWD in the room!). 

Last week, I was in a two-hour workshop. I knew maybe half the people there. I also knew that I was the only person there to provide the ‘user’ experience. This isn’t uncommon, but it still drives me nuts when it happens, especially in a session that was about finding the right person-centred model of care in the age of telehealth. When it came to introducing myself, I thanked the organiser for inviting me, and said that it was great to be there…as the most important person in the (Zoom) room. One of the researchers I know well and who I have worked with quite a lot in recent years, smiled widely. At least I had one person in the room who got me. I watched again to see how others responded. Some certainly did look a little shocked. 

I explained that having people like me to feed into the work is critical, and that it was great that they wanted to hear from someone with lived experience to (and it would have been great to have seen a few other folks doing the same). 

So, how do I manage to be ‘the voice’ of lived experience when it comes to these sorts of things? When the meeting is diabetes-specific what do I say that captures the needs and wishes of every single person with diabetes? And, as in this meeting, when it’s about designing a system that is for all people with a variety of health conditions, how do I effectively and adequately tell the HCPs and researchers in the room just what it is that those people want?

The answer is, I don’t. Of course I don’t. 

I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience other than my own. I can’t say ‘I need this’ and assume that is what everyone else wants, and I would never make that assumption. Nor do I try to convince anyone that my needs and experiences are representative of anyone’s other than me. 

I will advocate until I am blue in the face that there needs to be many different people consulted and engaged in the design, delivery and dissemination of healthcare services, activities, and resources. Sometimes, that does happen. But if it is only me, I am never there to provide specifics of what needs to be done. In fact, I spend most of my time urging (begging and pleading) for assurances that there will be far more, far better, far meaningful engagement from this moment forward. 

I see my role is to pointedly, deliberately, unambiguously, and often, bolshily, make sure that the others in the room embed the idea of co-design in everything they do. And do it with wide representation.

I honestly don’t believe that there can ever be too much lived experience representation. But in the cases when there is only very little, I have rarely met anyone who claims to be the oracle of all things to do with lived experience or believe that their ideas are the only one worth listening to. In fact, anytime that has happened that person never is asked back. 

When I am asked to help find people for an advisory board, or to be involved in consultation, I always search for people who I know can look beyond their own experience. Again, it’s not because they are expected to speak for others. Rather it’s to know that there are others with different experiences and that, while they are the one at the table in that moment, they will do everything possible to make sure that those others are invited next time. 

And THAT, is why, at times like this, people like me are the most important people in the room – those of us who are banging a very loud drum to make sure that our cohort grows and grows. If you are working in healthcare and don’t have people with lived experience as part of the discussion, you’ve forgotten the most important people.

Stop what you’re doing, RIGHT NOW, and go find them. 

IDF Congress, Busan 2019. Opening panel. Some super important people on the panel. Manny, Kyle and I just happened to be THE most important.

Yesterday, the Australian vaccine rollout was expanded to include children. This follows the TGA approving the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children in the 12 – 15 year age group. ATAGI responded by including children with diabetes in that age group into Phase 1B, meaning they are eligible right now for a jab (provided, of course, they can find one…!).

Already I’m seeing in diabetes online discussions some parents of kids with type 1 diabetes saying their child will not be getting the vaccine, stating that the reason for that decision is because their type 1 diagnosis came shortly after one of their childhood vaccines.

And so it seems a good time to revisit this post that I wrote back in 2017. It has a very long title that could have been much more simply: correlation ≠ causation.

It is understandable to want to find a reason for a health issue. Being able to blame something means that we can, perhaps, stop blaming ourselves. I imagine that for parents kids with diabetes that desire to find something – anything – to point to would come as somewhat of a relief. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that vaccines are that reason.

Unfortunately, the idea that vaccines are the root of all evil and cause everything under the sun is a myth that is perpetuated over and over in antivax groups; groups where science, evidence and logic goes to die. Vaccines save lives and they are safe. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

My sixteen year old is not in a priority group and cannot be vaccinated just yet, but she is ready to go as soon as her phase has the green light. All the adults nearest and dearest to her – her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle, friends’ parents – are fully vaccinated now, and she knows what a privilege it is to be in that situation. She understands that with that privilege comes responsibility to do what you can to protect vulnerable cohorts in the community. And she also understands that vaccines are safe and they save lives.

If you are feeling unsure about getting a COVID vaccine – for you or your child – please speak with your GP. Don’t listen to someone in a Facebook group. And that may come as a surprise to anyone who knows how important I consider peer support and learning from others in our community, but to them I say this: I listen to and learn from people in the diabetes community because they don’t suggest anti-science approaches. They talk about support, and provide tips and tricks for living with diabetes. If anyone tells me to ignore doctors (because all they care about is getting rich), or to stop taking my insulin (because there is a natural supplement that will do the trick), I would block them as quickly as I could. Science works. Science is why people with diabetes are alive today. Science is why we have vaccines. Trust science. THAT’S what makes sense.

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In the next couple of weeks, our kid gets to line up for her next round of immunisations. At twelve years of age, that means that she can look forward to chickenpox and Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis boosters, and a three-dose course of the HPV vaccine.

When the consent form was sent home, she begrudgingly pulled it out of her school bag and handed it to me. ‘I have to be immunised,’ she said employing the same facial expressions reserved for Brussels sprouts.

She took one look at me and then, slightly sheepishly, said, ‘I don’t get to complain about it, do I?’

Nope,’ I said to her. ‘You don’t get to complain about needles because…well because…suck it up princess. No sympathy about needles from your mean mamma! And you have to be vaccinated because that’s what we do. Immunisation is safe and is a really good way to stop the spread of infectious diseases that not too long ago people died from. And herd immunity only works if…

‘….if most people are immunised so diseases are not spread,’ she cut me off, finishing my sentence. I nodded at her proudly, signed the form and handed it back to her. ‘In your bag. Be grateful that you are being vaccinated. It’s a gift.’ (She mumbled something about it being a crappy gift, and that it would be better if she got a Readings gift voucher instead, but I ignored that.)

Over the weekend, the vaccination debate was fired up again with One Nationidiot leader, Pauline Hanson, sharing her half-brained thoughts on the issue.

I hate that I am even writing about Pauling Hanson. I despise what she stands for. Her unenlightened, racist, xenophobic, mean, ill-informed rhetoric, which is somehow interpreted as ‘she just says what many of us are thinking’, is disgusting. But her latest remarks go to show, once again, what an ignorant and dangerous fool she is.

Her comments coincided with a discussion on a type 1 diabetes Facebook page about vaccinations preceding T1D. Thankfully, smart people reminded anyone suggesting that their diabetes was a direct result of a recent vaccination that correlation does not equal causation.

I get really anxious when there is discussion about vaccinations, because the idea that this is something that can and should be debated is dangerous. There is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause diabetes (or autism or anything else). There is, however, a lot of evidence to show that they do a shed-load of good. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself how many cases of polio you’ve seen lately. People of my parents’ generation seemed to all know kids and adults with polio and talk about just how debilitating a condition it was. And they know first-hand of children who died of diseases such as measles or whooping cough.

This is not an ‘I have my opinion, you have yours. Let’s agree to disagree’ issue. It is, in fact, very black and white.

A number of people in the Facebook conversation commented that their (or their child’s) diagnosis coincided with a recent vaccination. But here’s the thing: type 1 diabetes doesn’t just happen. We know that it is a long and slow process.

Click for reference

What this shows is that even if onset of diabetes occurs at (correlates with) the time of a vaccination, it cannot possibly be the cause.

When we have people in the public sphere coming out and saying irresponsible things about vaccinations, it is damaging. People will listen to Pauline Hanson rather than listen to a doctor or a researcher with decades of experience, mountains of evidence and bucket-loads (technical term) of science to support their position.

The idea that ‘everyone should do their own research’ is flawed because there is far too much pseudo-science rubbish out there and sometimes it’s hard to work out what is a relevant and respectable source and what is gobbledygook (highly technical term).

Plus, those trying to refute the benefit of vaccinations employ the age-old tactic of conspiracy theories to have people who are not particularly well informed to start to question real experts. If you have ever heard anyone suggesting: government is in the pockets of Big Pharma / the aliens are controlling us / if we just ate well and danced in the sunshine / any other hare-brained suggestion, run – don’t walk – away from them. And don’t look back.

I have been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of days. I have what I describe as an irrational fear that my kid is going to develop diabetes. It keeps me awake at night, makes me burst into tears at time and scares me like nothing else. If I, for a second, thought for just a tiny second that vaccinating my daughter increased her chances of developing diabetes, she would be unvaccinated. If I thought there was any truth at all in the rubbish that vaccines cause diabetes, I wouldn’t have let her anywhere near a vaccination needle.

But there is no evidence to support that. None at all.

I know diabetes, and not much else. I have a few other health conditions that are no more than niggling, requiring minimal effort and engagement with healthcare professional. But they still do need some sort of attention and treatment. The stark difference between that treatment and the treatment for diabetes is that I never have to jump through hoops to get treatment for them. 

The other day, I had to go and have imaging on my elbow because said elbow hurts, the doctor thinks it’s tennis elbow which is now being referred to as latte elbow around here because the last time I picked up a tennis racket, Yannick Noah was ranked in the top 10. 

I went to the GP, told him what was wrong, and he wrote a referral straight away for an ultrasound and Xray and sent me on my way. Three days later, I had the scans done and today I’m waiting for a telehealth appointment to discuss treatment. There was no ‘let’s wait and see’ if it gets worse.

Diabetes seems to be a lot about waiting and seeing. Or use of arbitrary numbers to determine if something can be used. Or bargaining: you may have <x device/treatment>, but you must do <y intervention> first, even if <y intervention> is not want the PWD is remotely interested in. 

When I wanted to start on a pump twenty years ago, I had to go doctor shopping until I could find a doctor who would agree to filling out the requisite forms so my private health insurance would cover the cost of the pump. This was twenty years ago, and while pumps had already been around for a number of years by then, there really weren’t all that many Australians using them, so finding an endo comfortable with the whole thing was not easy.

My first endo told me I hadn’t had diabetes long enough to consider using a pump. Subsequent shopped doctors told me a) my diabetes wasn’t serious enough to warrant a pump, b) my A1c wasn’t high enough to use a pump, and c) my A1c was too low to use a pump. 

It took a while before I found a doctor whose response to my ‘I want to use an insulin pump’ was ‘Sure, where do I sign?’

When CGM came out I’d already found myself the sort of doctor who was more than happy to be guided by what I wanted, because she understood that I knew my diabetes best and therefore was the best person to decide what I wanted in my management arsenal. She’s still my doctor. There’s a reason for that!

Last week, I tweeted this:

Click to go to Twitter to read replies

The replies and discussion that this tweet started are really not a great snapshot of person-led care. In fact, it’s more like example after example of PWD being told no for not especially great reasons. 

It seems that there are two main barriers which are intertwined in some ways. 

The first is that HCPs continue to act as gatekeepers of diabetes technologies, deciding who is allowed to access what particular devices and when that can happen. This is problematic and harks back to a time when people with diabetes were mere patients, gratefully accepting what care was doled out to us without question. 

Some might think that this sort of archaic attitude is no longer around, but a glance through the replies shows that, sadly, that isn’t the case. 

The other barrier seems to be a whole heap of rules that seem to have no purpose other than expecting the person with diabetes meet them before they are deemed worthy of whatever it is they want. 

Some of the rules seems arbitrary, others probably come from a sensible place, but are not what person-centred care is about. Many don’t seem to be based in any kind of evidence at all. Regardless, all they do is promote a one size fits all process that must be met before a PWD can proceed, verifying our merit along the way.  

The very idea that we need to prove ourselves worthy of a diabetes treatment is offensive. We didn’t need to prove ourselves worthy to be diagnosed with diabetes, so why should we need to do so to have access to the technologies that are there to help us manage it? Why should we need to have diabetes for a certain about of time first, or do an education course that is not necessarily directly related to what we are searching for, or reach a certain A1c to earn our right to access and utilise a piece of diabetes tech?

(There is a third barrier unique to US DOC friends, and that is insurance requirements…. I don’t know all that much about insurance in the US, but I guess it is HCPs employed by, or advising the insurance who set up the ridiculous hurdles and hoops people with diabetes are expected to navigate.)

Now, obviously, there is the (not by any means insignificant) issue of cost. I understand that there is never an endless pot of cash to support people with diabetes. But even in places where there is funding available, or cost is to the individual – not the health system – there are still barriers in place. 

Living with diabetes is a constant, tough gig. If we are searching for something to help us through, and we have made the decision that we want to try something new, surely the role of our HCPs is to work with us rather than stand in our way. The holy grail for so many people with diabetes that I speak to is to make diabetes easier. And yet, all these barriers just make it more difficult. That hardly seems fair. 

More on this:

Damned if we do; damned if we don’t

Who’s in charge around here?

Old and New

Today is the day. The centenary of what remains one of the greatest medical discoveries ever. Here is a reworked post (first published here). There is not a day that I am not grateful for this discovery. And not a day goes by when I am not aware that the diabetes life I live and the access I have is not the same for everyone around the world.

And so today seems a really good day to make a donation to a charity that supports people with diabetes who need it. For me, when deciding which diabetes charities I’ve decided to donate to, it’s been important that the support is tangible. And that’s why I have repeatedly written about Life for a Child, and Insulin for Life on this blog, and supported them with regular donations for a number of years. Their works provides on the ground support, medications, diabetes supplies, education, as well as doing research. They also have an advocacy function, raising awareness of not only the work they do, but the people they support.

If you are able to make a donation it’s a great day to do it. In amongst the celebrations it’s important to remember not everyone will be able to do that today. Remembering them on this important day in diabetes history is very fitting.

Donate to Insulin for Life

Donate to Life for a Child

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There has been lots of discussion about what happened 100 years ago today – on 27 July 1921. University of Toronto scientists Fredrick Banting and Charles Best successfully isolated the hormone insulin. Today, that means that I am alive and kicking, 20 years after my islets stopped making any.

It means that type 1 diabetes treatment moved from being a starvation diet and not much else, to injecting a drug that was life giving and life saving.

It means that I take a drug that while giving me life, is also lethal and if not dosed carefully and with great consideration can cause terrible side effects.

It means that people with diabetes don’t die terrible, agonising deaths simply because they were diagnosed with diabetes.

It means that I need to be able to do crazy calculations to ensure what I put into my body completely and utterly imperfectly mimics what those with functioning islet cells do completely and utterly perfectly.

It means that there is a treatment therapy that gives us hope and life and allows us to live – sometimes very long, long lives.

It means that each and every day I feel fortunate to have been born when I was and not 100 years earlier.

It means I take for granted that I have access to a drug that keeps me going.

It means that there are far too many people around the world who still do not have access to the drug I take for granted. And 97 years later, that is not good enough.

It means that it was 97 years ago – 97 years ago – since the discover of insulin to treat diabetes and we are still without a cure.

And it means that I wonder when there will be the next breakthrough that is as significant and meaningful and life changing and life saving as what those two Canadian scientists discovered 97 years ago.

But mostly. It means that I live with hope. Hope that those scientists are somewhere working away, and perhaps – just perhaps – are about to find that next big breakthrough.

This stunning print is by Alex Durussel-Baker, a designer living in Edinburgh (click on print to be taken to her e-shop).
I’ve just placed an order so I can have this print in my office at home.
Alex is donating 20% of all sales of this print to Type 1 International, another charity I have written about a number of times, and supported financially.
You can see more artworks by Alex at her website, Diabetes by Design.

A week out from National Diabetes Week, and this piece has been sitting in my ‘to be published’ folder, just waiting. But the post-NDW exhaustion coupled with lockdown exhaustion, plus wanting to make sure that all my thoughts are lined up have meant that I haven’t hit the go button.

In the lead up to NDW I wrote this piece for the Diabetes Australia website. That piece was a mea culpa, acknowledging my own contribution to diabetes-related stigma and owning it. I also stand by my thoughts that the stigma from within the community is very real and does happen. 

But what I didn’t address is just where that stigma comes from. Those biases that many people with type 1 diabetes (and those directly affected by it) have towards type 2 diabetes come from somewhere, and in a lot of cases that is the same place where the general community’s bias about diabetes comes from. It is all very well for us to expect people with type 1 diabetes to do better, but I’m not sure that is necessarily fair. I think that we should have the same expectations of everyone when it comes to stamping out stigma. 

And so, to the source of stigma and, as I’ve said before, it comes from lots of places. As someone who has spent the last twenty years working in diabetes organisations, I know that the messaging my orgs like (and including) those that have paid my weekly salary has been problematic. I still am haunted by the ‘scary’ campaign from a few years ago that involved spiders, clowns, and sharks. (If you don’t remember that campaign, good. If you do, therapy works.)

For me personally, I don’t think much stigma I have faced has come at the hands of other PWD. Sure, there’s the low carb nutters who seem to have featured far too frequently on my stigma radar, however, the most common source of stigma has undoubtedly been HCPs. 

It’s not just me who has had this experience. The majority of what I have seen online as a response to experiences about stigma involves heartbreaking tales of PWDs’ encounters with their HCPs. 

While I will call out nastiness at every corner, and no stigma is good stigma, it must be said that there is a particular harm that comes when the origin of the stigma is the very people charged to help us. Walking into a health professional appointment feeling overwhelmed, scared, and frustrated only to leave still feeling those things, but with added judgement, shame and guilt is detrimental to any endeavours to live well with diabetes. In fact, the most likely outcome of repeated, or even singular, experiences like that is to simply not go back. And who could criticise that reaction, really? Why would anyone continually put themselves in a situation where they feel that way? I wouldn’t. I know that because I didn’t.

It’s one thing to see a crappy joke from a comedian who thinks they’re being brilliantly original (they never are) or the mundane, and almost expected, ‘diabetes on a plate’ throwaway line in a cooking show, but while these incidents can be damaging, they are very different to having stigmatising comments and behaviours directed at an individual as is often the case when it is from a HCP. 

Of course, HCPs aren’t immune to the bias that forms negative ideas and opinions about diabetes. In the same way that people with type 1 diabetes form these biases because those misconceptions are prevalent in the community, HCPs see them too. Remember this slide that I shared from a conference presentation? 

Slide from Jane Dickinson’s talk at ADA in 2019.

This came from student nurses. Just think about that. Students who were training to be HCPs who would inevitably be working with people with diabetes. A I wrote at the time:

‘They hadn’t even set foot on the wards yet as qualified HCPs. But somehow, their perceptions of people with diabetes were already negative, and so full of bias. Already, they have a seed planted that is going to grow into a huge tree of blaming and shaming. And the people they are trusted to help will be made to feel at fault and as though they deserve whatever comes their way.’

Is it any wonder that, with these attitudes seemingly welded on, that people with diabetes are experience stigma at the hands of their HCPs?

The impetus can’t only be on PWD to call this out. And the calls to fix stigma can’t exclusively rest on the shoulders of PWD – we already have a lot of weight there! It must come from HCPs as well – especially as there is such a problem with this group. Perhaps the first step is to see real acknowledgement from this group of their role here – a mea culpa from professional bodies and individuals alike. Recognising that no one is immune to the bias is a good step. Owning that bias is another. And then doing something about it – something meaningful – is how we make things better for people with diabetes. I really hope we see that happening. 

More about this:

Becoming an ally – how HCPs can show they’re really on our side. 

Ask a group of people with diabetes about their experiences of stigma, and for examples of the sorts of things they’ve heard and before long you’ll be able to compile a top ten list of the most commonly heard misconceptions that have contributed to diabetes having an image problem. When I’ve asked about this recently, the main perpetrators of these seemed to be healthcare professionals. More on that later this week. 

This year, in the Diabetes Australia National Diabetes Week campaign about diabetes-related stigma, two videos have been produced and they’re almost like a highlight reel of some of the stigmatising things people with diabetes hear. 

Let me tell you something I found really interesting. As part of the testing of these, I showed them to a heap of people with diabetes and a heap of people without diabetes. The reaction from people with diabetes varied from sadness (including tears), to anger and frustration, and mostly, recognition in everything they saw. 

The reaction from a number of people without diabetes was disbelief that this really happens. They simply couldn’t believe that people would be so insensitive; so cruel, so shaming. 

However, for so many people with diabetes, this is our reality. 

Here’s one of the two videos we produced. (You can watch the second one here.) Already, this is being shared widely in our own diabetes community. I’ve lost count of the places online I’ve seen this shared. Keep doing so, if you can. Because clearly, we need to get the message out to those without diabetes so they understand that not only is this sort of stigmatising behaviour harmful, but it is also horribly common. And it needs to stop. 

DISCLOSURE

I work for Diabetes Australia, and I have been involved in the development of the Heads Up on Diabetes campaign. I’ve not been asked to share this – doing so of my volition, because I think the messaging is spot on. The words here are my own, and have not been reviewed prior to publication.   

The current COVID-19 situation in Australia is not great. We seem to be on the cusp of a major outbreak, centred on a growing wave of new diagnoses out of NSW. Watching it all unfold from Victoria is somewhat triggering, and eerily familiar. The difference in 2021, of course, is that we now have vaccines to help combat the virus. Admittedly, our vaccine rollout is nothing short of a disaster, and that’s a massive problem when there is an outbreak like the one we’re facing right now. 

And so, that brings us to last night’s latest throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-will-stick approach that seems to be the method preferred by the Australian Government. And the latest shit is a new advertisement with the aim of encouraging people to get vaccinated. For the record, it hasn’t stuck.  

I’m not going to share the ad because it is traumatising. The general gist is that it shows a woman who appears to be under forty years of age in hospital with COVID struggling to breath. She is intubated. 

It is terrifying. 

Setting aside the fact that the woman in the ad probably couldn’t have been vaccinated even if she desperately wanted one (our rollout is still being managed by age, and under 40 year olds are certainly not anywhere near at the top of the queue yet), or that, according to healthcare professionals, there is no way that she would have been left untreated if she was struggling to breathe in that way, the way this advertisement has missed the mark is outrageous for a number of reasons:

It blames the individual for not doing the right thing rather than looking at the systemic issues that have hampered the rollout, which includes precuring enough vaccines, starting the rollout late, blundering the messaging, messing up distribution … and everything in between. 

It terrifies people and is likely to not illicit a response other than fear. 

There is no consideration for people who have COVID right now. How would family of someone currently in hospital feel seeing this? How traumatising would it be?

I watched the ad – once only and with the sound down after the first 4 seconds – and felt a ginormous sense of déjà vu. A fear-based ad campaign has been the basis of diabetes campaigns for many years, despite pleas from the diabetes community to do something better, and a realisation that the general community wasn’t bothering to pay attention. 

Thankfully, in recent years here in Australia, we’ve moved away from scary ads, understanding that we can provide a hard-hitting message without using scare tactics. Diabetes Australia has absolutely nailed that in recent years, firstly with a three-year campaign raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. And we are now in year two of a campaign looking at the mental health aspects of diabetes. (As ever – my disclosures are important. I work at Diabetes Australia and have been involved in all these campaigns.)

Advertisements based on fear and blame don’t work. Last night, I kept seeing people online harking back to the Grim Reaper campaign that was launched in the 1980s to raise awareness of AIDS, some claiming that it was brilliant because they still recall it. I remember the TV ads. But what I know now, but didn’t know then, was that one of the major flow-on effects from this campaign was stigma directed towards gay men – added stigma, I should say. This stigma took many years to turn around. Notoriety doesn’t not equal an effective campaign. 

But jeez, it sounds familiar! 

Here we are this week talking diabetes-related stigma and how we undo it, and part of that stigma – the misunderstandings about diabetes – came from campaigns being run by diabetes organisations. While I’m thrilled that here in Australia we’re doing a better job at moving away from that (albeit with a hiccough here and there), not all people working in diabetes organisations got the memo. It was just eighteen months ago that I sat on a panel with the incoming IDF President and had to address his idea that ‘fear arousal’ was worth considering as a way to raise awareness of the seriousness of diabetes. 

No. 

Just. No. 

And so, back to the disaster of the COVID vax ad. If only instead of terrifying, there was a focus on incentivising. If only instead of putting all blame on the individual, there was a celebration of communities coming together. If only instead of finger pointing at people desperately ready to get a jab there was acknowledgement of how difficult and confusing it’s been. 

If only…

This was my response to Professor Andrew Boulton’s suggestion that we use ‘fear arousal’ in diabetes campaigns. I wasn’t having any of it. Footage from the International Diabetes Congress in Busan, December 2019. Thanks to Georgie for the video, which was first shared on in this tweet.

I don’t know too many people living with diabetes who haven’t experienced stigma. I know I certainly have. In twenty-three years of living with diabetes, it’s come from all directions: the media, healthcare professionals, work colleagues and even family and friends. That’s because people outside the diabetes community often have pre-conceived ideas about what diabetes is all about, and a lot of those ideas are plain wrong.

But stigma doesn’t only come from outside the community. In fact, for some people with diabetes, some of the most harmful and hurtful experiences of stigma has actually come from other people with, or affected by, diabetes. [Click here to read more…]

DISCLOSURE

This piece was published today on the Diabetes Australia website, and I wrote it as part of the organisation’s National Diabetes Week campaign on diabetes stigma. I work for Diabetes Australia, and am sharing this because I’ve chosen to – not because I’ve been asked to. The words here are my own, and perhaps the only thing missing from the published text is some of the decorative language I often use when speaking about diabetes-related stigma. Bottom line – all stigma sucks. Let’s #EndDiabetesStigma now.

Gosh, I love baking a cake! It’s excellent therapy, super relaxing and is one of my favourite stress busters. I can pretty much guarantee to turn out something that not only looks Instagram-pretty but will also taste divine. I’ve written before that one of the reasons I love baking so much is because it is the exact opposite of diabetes: I know precisely what I’m going to get when I follow the steps of the recipe, and know enough that when I’m making things up as I go along what works, what doesn’t and what will yield the best results. Which is the polar opposite of diabetes, where following a ‘recipe’ guarantees nothing but confusion, frustration, and a completely different result to yesterday, and making it up can mean winding up with a rollercoaster or a straight line on the CGM. No one knows. It’s a mystery. It makes no sense to anyone.

Not (any type of) diabetes on a plate.

Next week is National Diabetes Week here in Australia, and focus is going to be on diabetes-related stigma. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks involved in the preparation of our campaign, listening to people with diabetes share their stories. You can check out this post on the Diabetes Australia Facebook page to see people sharing some examples of stigma they’ve experienced. It’s heartbreaking. It shouldn’t be happening.

I am very conscious that in the past I’ve probably contributed to stigma associated with type 2 diabetes. I’m horrified by it, and ashamed. I should have known better, and maybe if I’d bothered to learn from people with type 2 diabetes, I would have been more sensitive. When we blame and shame diabetes, we are blaming and shaming real people living with diabetes. I seemed to have forgotten that when I thought it was okay to demand that my diabetes was seen as the more serious diabetes, and that people make sure that they get my type of diabetes right.

And that brings me back to my cakes. And cakes in general. And comments about cakes. Especially comments about cakes being ‘diabetes on a plate’. They’re not. We all know that, right? And we all know that they are not any type of diabetes on a plate. Right?

Also not (any type of) diabetes on a plate.

And we know that when some idiot on a cooking show refers to a delectable, rich dessert as ‘diabetes on a plate’ that demanding clarification about ‘WhAt TyPe Of dIaBeTeS yOu MeAn’ is only contributing to the stigma. Right? 

Right?

Stigma sucks. It really does. It makes people just want to curl up and hide from others, and hide their diabetes. It makes people feel ashamed and guilty and, really, that’s just not fun at all. 

We don’t all need to love each other in the diabetes world – god knows that there are people who steer clear of me, and I am more than happy to return that favour – and we don’t need to align our advocacy efforts. But maybe we can all agree that all stigma associated with any type of diabetes is pretty nasty. That actually seems like a pretty simple thing upon which to agree.

Still not (any type of) diabetes on a plate.

More on this?

That time I wrote about this (and then a HCP misread it as me saying PWD don’t need to know what type of diabetes they have. It doesn’t say that…)

That time I owned my own shitty behaviour.

That time I wrote about how heavy diabetes stigma is.

Nope. Not (any type of) diabetes on a plate.
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