Diabetes and Depression: What You Need to Know

Living with a chronic illness like diabetes can take a toll on someone’s mental health. The daily care to manage one’s health can at times feel overwhelming or isolating. Kelsey Howard, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist for Lurie Children’s Diabetes Program, provides helpful tips and answers to common questions regarding how chronic conditions affect one’s mental health  

Is someone more likely to experience depression or anxiety if they have been diagnosed with a chronic illness?

We see a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression in individuals with chronic illnesses, including diabetes. Some people have worries or sad moods about their illness, whereas other people may have symptoms of anxiety and depression that may not have a lot to do with their chronic illness.   

For people with diabetes, we also talk about diabetes-related emotional distress, which refers to negative emotions that are specific to diabetes. This can include feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or burned out with diabetes. 

We know that anxiety, depression, and diabetes-related emotional distress can impact a person’s overall well-being and make it harder to engage in diabetes management. It’s important for people with diabetes to address their emotional well-being in addition to checking blood sugar, taking insulin, and attending diabetes appointments. 

Why are people more likely to experience anxiety or depression with a chronic illness? 

Living with a chronic illness is hard and many people experience stress associated with managing diabetes or another chronic illness. Kids and teens who live with a chronic illness may have to miss out on school, sports, or social activities because of doctor’s appointments. Some chronic illnesses have physical symptoms (for example: fatigue, pain, difficulty sleeping) that are tough to manage.   

Diabetes is very demanding. Improving glycemic control can be difficult. Some families may feel like they’re doing everything they’ve learned to do and still aren’t seeing the changes they’d like to see in blood sugar trends or A1c. Parents and kids may argue over blood sugar numbers or other aspects of diabetes care. All of these things can impact a person’s emotions.   

It’s important to know that it’s very common and normal to have a number of feelings about living with a chronic illness. It may feel unfair, stressful or disappointing. You may have some worries or “what if” questions about the future. Just because it’s common does not mean that you shouldn’t do something about it if it is bothering you.   

If sad or anxious feelings take up a lot of time, bother a person a lot, or cause problems at school, at home, or with friends, it’s a good sign that it may be helpful to talk to a healthcare provider. If you don’t know where to start, your pediatrician or diabetes care team are great resources. They see a lot of kids and teens who go through similar things. It can be hard to feel this way. The good news is that we have a lot of effective ways to address anxiety, depression and diabetes distress. 

Does diabetes affect someone’s mood? 

There is a relationship between blood sugar and mood. A lot of people will notice that they have trouble concentrating or feel fatigued, irritated, or cranky when their blood sugar is running high. Symptoms of low blood sugar (feeling shaky, sweaty, having a fast heartbeat, dizziness) can feel like anxiety. This can be confusing, and some people may ask,Is this anxiety/depression or my blood sugar?” Checking blood sugar can help you answer this question.   

What are the signs of depression in children? 

Many people think of depression as feeling really sad. Sad mood is one of the symptoms of depression, but there are others. It is common for some children and adolescents to have irritable moods with depression. Children may be tearful a lot of the time. Youth may lose interest in things they usually enjoy like sports, activities, or time with friends. They may also have problems with sleep or appetite. Caregivers may notice that their child seems more withdrawn or isn’t engaging in school or preferred activities like they typically would. All of these can be signs that it would be a good idea to check in about a child or teen’s mood and talk to a healthcare provider. 

Is it common for parents or caregivers of a child or teen to also experience depression and anxiety if they have a child with diabetes? 

It’s very common for parents to also have a variety of feelings about their child’s diabetes. Caregivers can also have feelings of anxiety, depression, or diabetes-related emotional distress. It’s important for parents to check in about their own moods and feelings and seek out care if they are feeling anxious or depressed.   

Many parents also benefit from connecting to other parents of children with diabetes. Some parents meet other parents at JDRF or ADA-sponsored events. The Parentwise Program at Lurie Children’s is a great resource for getting paired up with another parent of a child with diabetes.  

How can someone help a child manage living with a chronic illness like diabetes and depression and/or anxiety? 

It’s a good idea for caregivers to check in with their child about how they’re feeling. If you’re concerned that your child is dealing with anxiety, depression, or diabetes-related emotional distress, talk to your child’s care provider (pediatrician or endocrinologist). These providers know your child well and can help connect you to services that can help.   

Diabetes is best managed as a team. In the same way that the diabetes team at Lurie Children’s includes doctors, nurses, diabetes educators, nutritionists, psychologists, and social workers, it’s important that families work together as a team to manage diabetes. It’s a good idea for families to talk about how they can best work together as a team, as this will look different for every family. When a child or teen is struggling with anxiety, depression, or diabetes distress, other team members should also step in to take on some of the burden of diabetes. This can look different for every family. 

Some people with chronic illnesses benefit from connecting with other people who are going through the same thing. For people with diabetes, this may mean getting involved with organizations that can connect you with others (like JDRF or ADA). The Peerwise Program at Lurie Children’s is also a great way to connect with trained volunteers who also have diabetes.  

It’s important to note that if you suspect that your child or teen is in crisis, emergency help is available from the suicide crisis line at 988, by calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room. 

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