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Last week’s Diabetes Australia Language Matters Global Summit was a terrific, snack-sized event that packed a lot into (just over) an hour. An absolutely stellar panel including Greg Johnson, Jane Speight, Partha Kar, Stephanie Haack, Nina Tousch and Tim Skinner made for an interesting, hopeful, encouraging and enjoyable discussion. I’m really proud of the way we were able to bring together people with diabetes, clinicians and researchers, offering different perspectives and ideas about why language matters.

During the event, Diabetes Australia launched our latest Language Matters Position Statement – ten years and one month after we launched our first. You can find it here.

If you missed the Summit, you can watch below.

Disclosure

I work at Diabetes Australia. I was involved in organising this event and hosted the panel discussion. I’m sharing this because I am choosing to.

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.   

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.

Imagine if the only emotion we felt when we ate something was joy. How different that would be.

A more detailed post about language a food can be found here.

Is it this week’s full moon? Is Mercury in retrograde? (I actually don’t know what that means.) Is it the changing seasons?

I’m not sure the reason, but the last couple of weeks seems to have been especially busy when it comes to annoying people being annoyingly stigmatising on the Twitters.

It’s tiring calling it out. I sometimes do, I sometimes don’t have the mental bandwidth to get into it.

So, for those times that I can’t be bothered doing much, but want to do something, I now have this. And I’ll be sharing and posting and responding to stigmatising tweets with nothing more than a bright red and pink image.

This blog post is dedicated to Alex who has had to deal with some fucking unbelievable stigma today, and C and Mila who are regularly fabulous in the way they brilliantly call out stigma online.

If I’m asked about the burden of diabetes stigma, a complex tree diagram starts to form in my head. There are branches sticking out at weird angles with arrows and overlapping segments and odd clusters…and I suddenly become burdened just thinking about diabetes burden!

I’ve written before many times about just how heavy diabetes can be – a dense weight that comes from the never-ending need to ‘do diabetes’ and the never-ending attempts to make sense of it all. And I’ve commented on the emotional weight that we feel when diabetes becomes overwhelming and distressing, and the burden of burnout. And I’ve also written a lot about the relentless stream of diabetes admin – and why having a personal assistant to manage my diabetes would be just so damn useful to alleviate the burden of appointment making, prescription filling, consumables stocktaking and complications screening

Burden takes on many forms. And it means different things to different people. If there is a burden spectrum, we would see people plotted all along the line. And we would move around as well. I know that there have been times I’ve feel far more burdened by diabetes, and I know that I feel so much less burdened since I’ve been using Loop because the tasks that added to that daily burden have diminished considerably. Diabetes makes a lot more sense a lot more of the time without me needing to work it out. Of course, the weight is less. 

But on top of the daily tasks and the feelings of being overwhelmed, there is still more that can contribute to burden. One of those things is stigma – the way others make us feel about diabetes – about our diabetes – can add significant burden. 

Yesterday, I tweeted this:

If you want to see an incredibly diverse and interesting discussion about how stigma has impacted people with diabetes, and parents of kids with diabetes, click on the tweet above and read the replies.  I asked the same question on my Facebook page and the stories there were equally harrowing. People’s experiences are heartbreaking. It becomes clear why people drop out of healthcare, are terrified to see HCPs, or try to hide their diabetes from others when you understand how they have been treated. 

The weight of that burden is heavy. The judgement and blame and shame can weigh us down. The emotional weight of stigma can be paralysing. 

One of the themes that is recurring when it comes to stigma discussions is the idea that we are not doing enough to look after ourselves. That could be in reference to developing long-term complications, or it could be an in-the-moment situation that someone thinks we should be better prepared for. I remember someone once criticising me for not having any jellybeans on me when I was having a hypo. I’d had three hypos already that day, and had worked through my stash. I wasn’t wilfully neglecting my diabetes by being caught short. But that was the assumption. 

Another theme is that diabetes is a character or personality flaw, brought on by not caring enough about out health. How tiring it is to have that being said when we are also trying to simply manage to live with diabetes. Weight stigma and diabetes stigma go hand in hand for many, with assumptions made left, right and centre. 

Being diagnosed with diabetes creates burden. Living with diabetes brings daily burden. Worrying about how diabetes might impact our futures crafts more burden. And stigma adds even more. It’s exhausting, hurtful and just downright unnecessary. 

More musings about diabetes and stigma

Stigma & diabetes-related complications

Owning my own contributions to diabetes-related stigma in people with type 2 diabetes. 

Where does stigma start? 

How insisting on defining diabetes when it doesn’t matter adds to stigma

Yesterday, I gave a talk about language and stigma, and one of the questions I was asked focused on stigma within the diabetes community. I’ve had this post sitting in my ‘unpublished’ folder for months now, and decided that today was the day to publish it. I’m dedicating it to all my friends with type 2 diabetes.

There is a photo of me from 2011. I am standing in my office at work, wearing a bright red t-shirt. I’m staring at the camera, my eyebrows raised, a smirk on my face. My fingers are pointing to the words printed across the front of the t-shirt: Type 1 diabetes. The real diabetes. 

At the time, I was running a program that was exclusively about developing and running programs and activities for people with type 1 diabetes. It remains one of the things I’m most proud about in my career, because at the time, what was available to people living with or affected by type 1 diabetes was really, really limited.

At its peak, our program ran over 20 events across the state in both the city and rural areas, including diabetes technology expos that featured all the latest and greatest in Dtech; a diabetes and pregnancy program; we published a monthly type 1 diabetes-specific e-newsletter; established a program of peer support groups for people affected by type 1 diabetes; and also included in the program were camps for kids with diabetes. We put type 1 diabetes on the map as a program area that needed special attention, resources, funding and acknowledgement. The program was entirely ‘user-led’ meaning that everything we did came from feedback from the community, and many of us in the team were living with diabetes ourselves. Many of the things I see these days in the diabetes community are activities we first did fifteen years ago.

On top of the community engagement and events we were doing, the type 1 focus meant that we were now demanding attention in the policy and advocacy space. The specific needs that were relevant to people with type 1 diabetes were being discussed separately, and that yielded some impressive results – improvements to and extension of the Carer Allowance for parents of kids with type 1 diabetes; funding of pump consumables on the NDSS; pathways to funding of digital technology solutions being on everyone’s radar. We had (and continue to have) wins because of this attention to type 1 diabetes. We started doing this eighteen years ago and are still pushing the agenda.

I have no qualms about the program we started being an exclusively type 1 diabetes program. At the time, the organisation was already doing lots for people with type 2, and my work was addressing a gap in our programs and services. I was employed as a response to feedback from people with type 1 diabetes who felt that the services offered where not relevant to them. So, by working closely with the community, we built something from the ground up that provided people with type 1 diabetes what they wanted.

When the photo I described at the opening of this post was taken, my head was exclusively working on type 1 diabetes activities. I thought the shirt was cute and fun, and that I looked cute and fun wearing it. And I knew that so many of the people with type 1 diabetes that I was working alongside would love it too. The response when I shared the photo on Facebook proved me right. I know how to play to an audience!

Today, I am horribly ashamed and embarrassed that I wore this shirt with such glee, and the attitude that I held towards people with type 2 diabetes. Because while I saw the t-shirt as a just a bit of fun, the truth underlying it was that I did believe that type 1 diabetes was the more serious, the more important, the more misunderstood, the more maligned, the more worthy condition. After all, we couldn’t have done anything to stop our diabetes, could we? We were completely blameless. How horrible I feel today even typing those words.

I deleted the photo from my Facebook a number of years ago, but I still have it saved. Any  time I stumble across it, I feel a rush of shame. I was going to share it with this post, but a wise friend counselled me against that idea, saying that it was likely that somehow it could be used out of context and against me. It will remain hidden for now, bundled up with that shame and disgust I rightfully feel when I see it.

So, when did things change for me?

Of course, it was when I started listening to people with type 2 diabetes. It was hearing about their challenges and the constant stigma they felt. It was hearing how they felt when they were misrepresented in the media, or by others who knew little about type 2. That was when I realised how hurtful the narrative surrounding type 2 diabetes was for many of the people actually living with it.

I’m ashamed to say that harmful narrative that I actually contributed to. I certainly hadn’t always behaved with intent, but some of the time – such as when wearing clothing that suggested that I had the ‘real’ type of diabetes – was deliberate. Calculated or not, my complete lack of knowledge about type 2 diabetes, and the challenges faced by those living with it, meant that I was very often stigmatising.

I knew I needed to change what I was saying. Whilst I still believed in the absolute philosophy of the program I was leading, and the necessity of it having a type 1 focus, I understood that I needed to reframe the way I spoke. And I needed to be accountable to what was going on around me in discussions about all types of diabetes. The commitment I had to calling out misinformation about type 1 diabetes could no longer be at the expense of type 2 diabetes.

I have said this a million times – no one has to advocate for any cause they don’t want to. No one has to take on something that they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to focus on. No one has to be an advocate for all types of diabetes. There are some absolutely brilliant people who hone their energies on issues surrounding only one type of diabetes because that is what they know and what they are passionate about, and all the power to them – especially when they do that by elevating their cause BUT NOT diminishing others.

For me, my focus is on a number of different things and some of them actually do remain specific to type 1 diabetes. Some span all types of diabetes. The difference these days is the way that I do it.

I am sorry to all my friends with type 2 diabetes who I misunderstood, misrepresented and stigmatised. I have no excuse for my behaviour, but I do own it. And I promise I will keep calling out anything that I see contributing to the narrative that I once was part of.

Postscript

I’m writing the next bit in bold, because a while ago I published a post suggesting that when correcting stigmatising comments in the media, we don’t necessarily need to specify type of diabetes, and it was somehow misconstrued to mean things that I did not actually say. The things in bold below? There are dozens of examples of me stating these exact things through my blog, talks I’ve given, other articles I have written. But here they are in one little place just so my position is super-dooper clear.

  • Of course, we need to know what type of diabetes we are living with. We have a right to know and understand our own body and what’s going on with it, and the implications of our type of diabetes. For example, autoimmune diabetes comes with a whole heap of other considerations such as AI clustering and what that can mean to other family members.
  • Of course, we can and should feel free to say ‘I have type x diabetes’ if we want to. We can identify and talk about our own diabetes any way we want to. No one has the right to tell us otherwise. (Now I want to have ‘type x diabetes’ because that sounds all cool and mysterious and as though it could be the starting point of a disaster movie about world domination.)
  • Of course, there are some groups of people who really do need to fully, completely, utterly, absolutely understand the different types of diabetes and what they mean. For example – HCPs should know, policy makers should understand (to name just a couple of groups).
  • Of course, we should know the best management on offer for our own type of diabetes and be clear about what we are doing/using ourselves.
  • Of course, we should know that people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes need insulin and there is no other choice.
  • Of course, we should look at outcomes for all types of diabetes and see what measures need to be taken to improve them – and those measures will most likely be different for different types of diabetes.

I have been fairly quiet on Twitter lately. My blog has been dormant, and I’ve really only been using social media to connect with family and friends. Oh, and sharing recent baking efforts – as evidenced by this Twitter thread last night.

But that doesn’t mean that I have stopped following what is going on. Plus, it’s difficult to ignore stuff when many people start sending DMs wanting to know why I have been silent on an issue about which I am known to be very vocal.

I’m talking about last week’s webinar hosted by Diabetes Victoria, presented by Dr James Muecke.

Firstly – some disclaimers and disclosures. I worked for state-based Diabetes Victoria from 2001 to January 2016. Since then I have been working for Diabetes Australia, which is a national organisation.

James Muecke is the 2020 Australian of the Year. I wrote a little about him in this post which caused a shit storm of its own when a UK HCP tone policed me my writing and said that I was doing a disservice to people with diabetes by writing in the post that there is no need for people to know what type of diabetes they live with. Yeah – I didn’t say that, but anyway…

But the issue was not Muecke’s presentation; it was the title of his presentation: Blinded by Sugar.

My reaction when I first saw the promotional flyer was horror. And then shock. And then surprise. I was honestly stunned.

And then, once the surprise and confusion subsided, I felt distress. That feeling of dread, and sadness, and anxiety that settles itself in the pit of my stomach. And doesn’t move.

When I talk about language, its power and how it is personal, this is what I mean. Because to me, it’s not just a couple of words in a clumsy, ill-conceived title. Suddenly, it is every single time I sit in the waiting room of my ophthalmologist’s waiting to hear if diabetes has started to affect my vision; it is the flooding back of words from my first endo appointment, where I was told that if I dared let my glucose levels get above 8mmol/l, it would be my fault if I became blind; it is the blame and shame and stigma and finger pointing that we see and hear every time we are told to ‘look after ourselves’ as if we are wilfully ignoring our health and not caring about our wellbeing; it is the guilt that I feel when I eat some cake or a biscuit and the times people have asked ‘should you be eating that?’; it is the feeling of frustration and unfairness of when I can’t work out how my glucose levels could possibly be high after I’ve done everything ‘right’, and the fear of what damage is happening to me at that moment; it is the burnout, the anxiety the days of feeling so overwhelmed because I just.can’t.do.this.anymore, but I have no choice’.

THAT is how I feel when I see words like those in the title of that webinar presentation.

It’s no surprise that this was picked up by some people in the DOC. There are people in the community who are highly attuned to language and diabetes and will call out any example that is doing a disservice to people with diabetes. I am usually one of those people. I’m not proud that I didn’t say anything publicly when this was unfolding over the weekend.

So, what has happened since then, after some of the DOC shared their feedback?

Diabetes Vic CEO, Craig Bennet issued an apology and should be commended on how swiftly he did that. Owning the error and promising to do better is always appreciated.

Today, it seems that the LCHF bullies have now jumped on board, supporting the messaging in the original promotional flyer.

I will say this strongly and without reservation or apology. When you find that you are satisfying this group, you are not helping PWD. It is a person from this group that tweeted this about a group of dietitians. It is this group that fat shamed me after I gave a television interview last year. It is this group that has stigmatised people living with diabetes, claiming they have brought on diabetes-related complications for daring to eat a scoop of ice-cream.

I couldn’t care less about how anyone chooses to eat. I do care a lot when it comes to how certain groups in the community contribute to the already overwhelming stigma faced by people with diabetes.

And finally, everyone makes mistakes. In the last few months, we’ve seen some pretty miserable efforts by diabetes organisations around the world. But the thing that has stuck with me through each of these is how easily they could have been avoided. We do need more engagement with people with diabetes – especially those who can help shape effective communication and messaging.

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