While the holiday season kicks in, so does National Diabetes Awareness Month, just before one of the most challenging days with those with Type 1 Diabetes.
Roughly 7,700 first-year students enter college with Type 1 diabetes each year, according to an article by the National Institute of Health. Dr. Kathleen Wyne, a professor in the Division of Endocrinology with a specialization in Type 1 diabetes, said there is a harmful misconception that Type 1 diabetes is a debilitating and life-altering disease that only affects young children.
“They live normal lives, people don’t realize that,” Wyne said. “Most people probably know someone with Type 1 diabetes and maybe just don’t realize it because the person, they’re just normal except for the fact they have to take insulin when they eat.”
Cass Freeland, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s advocacy team chair for Central Ohio, said while many see the scope of the condition limited to children, almost half of the people with it are adults.
“I think that there’s this idea that it’s juvenile diabetes and you have it when you’re young,” Freeland said. “But it doesn’t go away, and so 85 percent of people who have Type 1 diabetes are adults now.”
Also the mother of a college student with Type 1 diabetes, Freeland said these misunderstandings surrounding the disease may stem from mere ignorance.
“Part of it might be that it hasn’t touched their life yet in some way, and part of it might be that if it has touched their life, they just really didn’t have a great understanding of it,” Freeland said. “There are lots of sentiments expressed in public sometimes about obesity and the relationship with diabetes, and I guess I would call it victim blaming. I think that that’s just a sentiment people recognize and they don’t look past it for information themselves.”
Wyne said another explanation for these misconceptions is the stigma surrounding chronic diseases.
“When people talk about things and what they remember, they remember the people who don’t do well, they don’t remember the people who do do well,” Wyne said. “They talk about the person who had a problem in school, who collapsed, who they had to call an ambulance for, but they don’t talk about the other people who are doing fine.”
Freeland said among the multitude of challenges college students with Type 1 diabetes face are navigating independence as a new adult, maneuvering a different relationship with one’s parents and even impaired access to supplies such as insulin pumps.
“That’s just a lot of responsibility for a young person that other young people don’t have,” Freeland said.
Finding social support is especially important for individuals with Type 1 diabetes, though it can often pose its own set of difficulties, Wyne said. In a college setting where drinking may occur, she said these struggles can be even more prevalent.
“If someone’s acting funny or sitting over in the corner and everybody’s drinking, they’re gonna assume the person’s drunk, but the person actually could be hypoglycemic,” Wyne said. “In an ideal world, you would have a group of friends who know you have diabetes and keep an eye on you, but if you’re self-conscious, don’t have a lot of self-confidence, you’re scared to tell your friends.”
The holiday season can be an especially challenging time for individuals with diabetes, Freeland said. She said those with Type 1 diabetes need to carefully count their carbohydrates to properly determine how much insulin to take, which can be stressful when eating food made by others who are not as carbohydrate-conscious.
“Holidays are a time for being together hopefully and enjoying things, but the emphasis on eating can get stressful because there’s just only so many carbohydrates sometimes that a person with diabetes can absorb,” Freeland said.
Wyne said there are solutions to such obstacles and encourages her college students how to manage these situations rather than just avoid them.
“For example, your grandmother has made this for the family for the last 60 years,” Wyne said. “You’re not going to get your grandmother to make that dish differently, but let’s figure out what’s in the dish, let’s figure out how many carbohydrates are in it, let’s figure out how much insulin you would need for it and then figure out how you can do portion control.”
For family members and friends of those with Type 1 diabetes, Wyne said it is crucial they treat their diabetic loved ones as “normal.”
“Treat them as the other sibling, as the other cousin, as the other whatever in the family,” Wyne said. “Give them the same presents, give them the same traits, and let the young adult with diabetes figure out how to manage it, because that is part of life is figuring out how to manage all the components.”
Freeland said she hopes diabetes awareness doesn’t cease when Dec. 1 arrives because “there’s never a time it’s not important.”
“I take the opportunity to put the focus on diabetes during November because that’s when we have a bigger audience for that,” Freeland said. “I’m spreading awareness the rest of the year too. I do take advantage of the audience I have then, but it needs to happen all day every day.”
Wyne said she encourages college students with Type 1 diabetes to use the holiday season as an opportunity to talk about the importance of diabetes antibody screenings with family members. Any Ohio State student with diabetes should register with the Office of Student Life Disability Services, she said.
More information about and resources for diabetes among college students can be found via The Diabetes Link, a nonprofit dedicated to creating materials for diabetic students in their transition from high school to college, Wyne said.
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