A Fight against Social Stigma of diabetes 

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Chan Yun Xin, currently a first-year medical student at the University of Malaya, Malaysia. He is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

“I do not have as much sympathy for those who struggle with diabetes if they refuse to put together a good health plan for themselves.” 

A response by a medical student before a study on a contact-based educational approach to reduce the stigma of diabetes in medical education. The typical social stigma is that people with diabetes are categorised as lazy and the ones lack self-discipline.

The association of diabetes with unhealthy lifestyle factors related to diet and sedentary behaviour had contributed to the social stigma. As the public framed diabetes as a lifestyle-related disease interlinked with personal responsibilities. A barrier which denies the realization of their full potential as members of society, has deprived them of their rights and quality of life. Obtaining a driving license, dealing with medical insurance policies, getting or keeping a job can be challenging due to the unfair discrimination.

If only people could realise the aetiology of diabetes extends beyond diet and exercise, it includes genetic factors and social determinants of health such as access to food and primary health care. The exclusion, rejection, and negative stereotyping associated with diabetes had led to lower sense of self-worth, lower quality of life and higher psychological distress, especially for those who internalize stigma.Thus, prioritising the psychosocial aspect of diabetes care is essential to keep discrimination and harassment at bay.

The fight against social stigma starts from understanding via emphasizing the need to educate people about the causes of diabetes as well as the day-to-day management of the disease. For instance, exposing the public to the diabetes community through social media and campaigns are initial steps to break the barriers. Instead of placing a blame on people with diabetes, it increased understanding of the seriousness of diabetes and empathy for the struggles of managing one’s blood sugar. 

Notice how the word diabetic people is never mentioned here. Based on the “Language Matters” guide published by the National Health Service in England, the aim is to refrain from using stigmatising language both verbally and non-verbally. As health professionals, we ought to realise how we communicate with and about our patients can either reinforce or minimise the stigma experienced by people with diabetes. The essential point is to avoid judgemental phrases and label people as their condition. For example, use ‘lives with’ instead of ‘sufferer’ and address them as ‘people with diabetes ‘ instead of ‘diabetic’. The right words can go a long way to ensure the needs of people with diabetes are well-recognised.

Discrimination in social life is the tip of the iceberg of the stigma experienced by people with diabetes. Concerning the rise in the number of people diagnosed with diabetes, innovative educational interventions are great approaches to make a difference in the psychosocial aspect of patient care in the future. Most importantly, stop making judgements and be aware of your words, as no one wants to be addressed as ‘those diabetic people’.

About the author

Chan Yun Xin is currently a first-year medical student at the University of Malaya, Malaysia. She is determined to develop the clinical skills required to provide holistic service for her future patients. Besides medical treatments, she aims to take care of the well-being of patients and improve public awareness of health issues. The social stigma of health diseases and disabilities she saw while working in the hospital, had further inspired her to voice up against discrimination to protect the patient’s rights in getting fair treatment from society.

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