The diabetes stigma is alive and well.
Today my son called me after school. When I asked him how the day was, he answered his usual “Good.”
However, he proceeded to tell me that his friend had made a not-so-funny joke.
“Really?” I asked him. “What did he say?”
“That I have Type 2 Diabetes,” he said.
My heart sank a little… and so it begins.
The Diabetes Stigma Needs To Change
Now, my son has known the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 for some time. And he knows that people and movies make controversial jokes about diabetes all the time, and that they are just nonsense.
But in this case he has known the boy who said it for a few years, and in the context it was said, it was intended to be hurtful, even though this boy probably did not exactly realize what it all meant.
Diabetes Stigmatization Arises from Fear and Ignorance
At times, everyone with diabetes will most likely feel stigmatized, no matter what type of diabetes they are living with. This alienation and judgment can arise from fearful misconceptions.
In short, some people who don’t know enough about the condition blame people with diabetes for bringing the condition on themselves.
The Stigma of Type 2 Diabetes
People with diabetes, including children who have had it for several years, know that there is a clear distinction between Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is autoimmune related and Type 2 is typically associated with an unhealthy lifestyle – which we also know is not always the case for everyone with Type 2.
The idea that Type 1s “can’t help it” and Type 2s “brought it on themselves” can lead to a prejudice that Type 1 is somehow more noble while Type 2 is shameful.
That prejudice was the basis for my son’s friend’s “bad joke”, which was intended to ridicule. He had picked up on the notion that to say that my son has Type 2 Diabetes would somehow be an insult.
There is much work to be done to erase this stigma.
The Truth About Type 2 Diabetes
The truth is, we do not know exactly what causes Type 2 Diabetes, just as we don’t know what causes Type 1.
Yes, in many cases the onset of Type 2 Diabetes strongly correlates with lifestyle risk factors that can be modified, such as diet.
However, there is also a strong genetic influence on the risk of developing Type 2. Even the research points to many different potential factors.
Age is also a factor (Type 2 most often develops in adults over 45), and it can also develop as a complication arising from other medical conditions.
Sometimes the onset of Type 2 Diabetes is a total mystery.
We need to address the widespread myth that Type 2 Diabetes is a “fat person’s condition”.
Aside from these other possible causes of Type 2, even if we hypothetically assume for a moment that it’s caused by a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle alone, we’d be overlooking some important facts:
- Not everyone can afford or access education about diet and health that will help them stay healthy and disease-free
- Huge multinational conglomerates infiltrate areas of lower socioeconomic standing, offering cheap unhealthy food, and often it’s the only food that families can afford
- Some areas are remote and access to healthy food is challenging, so their diet may be high in processed, shelf-stable food that is high in sugar and preservatives, and lacking in fresh food
- Food labelling has far to go and even the most diet-conscious person can have a hard time identifying what is in the food they are eating
- Some people are highly restricted in their ability to exercise due to a medical condition or injury.
As you can see, in this world it’s often hard to be healthy, even when we want to be.
People with diabetes are no more to blame for their condition than someone with cancer or a virus.
The Diabetes Stigma Starts Early
Even if the boy in my son’s school did not really understand the deeper meaning of his comment, there is still so much wrong with this scenario.
A young child using Type 2 Diabetes as a hurtful dig. Wow.
We have so much more education to do than I thought. The discrimination and blame of Type 2 is starting so early.
In this case, my son did not say anything back to the boy. I’m not sure he knows a good response for this, and I am not certain I know how to teach him to properly respond.
If any parent asked me how to prepare their child with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes for the random, stupid comments that they will endure throughout his or her life because of diabetes, I would not have a perfect answer. Fortunately, it does not happen daily. But when it does happen, it can catch you off guard and it can be hurtful.
I was relieved to learn that the boy later apologized. But because my son did not respond, I was confused as to what made the boy change his mind.
I learned that a girl in class had come to my son’s rescue. She corrected the boy who had called him a Type 2, so he apologized. I am thankful that awareness education does seem to be reaching some kids, and no doubt my son’s presence in the class has helped those kids learn about the condition.
But more needs to be done. Please teach your children how to extend kindness and compassion to any person with a special need, and to defend and correct against prejudice.
The burden of diabetes, or whatever condition it may be, is more than enough to deal with without stigma and shame added into the mix.
People With Diabetes Are More Than Their Condition
To anyone reading this with any type of diabetes. Please know that you are more than your diabetes.
If you don’t have diabetes, please know that people with diabetes are more than their condition. Diabetes can happen for a whole host of reasons that are in many cases out of someone’s control. It is not just lifestyle related.
Be kind to one another. And, as Graham Nash so eloquently put it in the song from 1970, “Teach your children well.”
Learn about Lifestyle & Wellness Coaching for people with diabetes at DiapointME.
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Relieve some of the anxiety you feel whenever your child with Type 1 Diabetes heads to school for the day.
You'll find tips on educating the teacher and nurse, making emergency snack boxes, traveling on the school bus and more.