Living with diabetes and its mental health impact

Pippa Anning

Pippa Anning - Credit: Archant

To mark World Mental Health Day, which tool place on Saturday (October 10), a former Woodroffe student who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just nine-years-old, shares her journey from ‘model diabetic,’ to enforced hospitalization, and back again - to highlight the psychological difficulties of managing the condition.

When Pippa Anning, now 23, first learned she had diabetes she was at primary school. Despite her young age, and with the support of both her family and the children’s diabetes group, Exeter Snack Pack, she handled her condition so well she soon earned the moniker ‘model diabetic’ by her healthcare team. This continued throughout primary school and well into her first years at secondary school.

But diabetes is relentless and the daily grind of dealing with such a condition gradually began to take its toll. By the time exams came round she was stressed, anxious, struggling to manage her glucose levels and eating so little she was on the verge of anorexia.

“I hated being described as a ‘model diabetic’. It was the worst title to give to a young person, such a pressure to live up to. I’d keep messing up, then I’d feel so guilty, I’d mess up yet again,” said Pippa.

In her first term at university studying adult nursing the situation went from bad to worse. She was away from home, family and the diabetes care she had known since childhood was moved to adult services. The changes were significant and, combined with the issues she was already experiencing, it all became too much until eventually she felt forced to quit the course entirely.

“Nursing was the only career I’d ever wanted. Ever since I was five-years-old it was all I’d dreamed of doing. So that decision really hit hard. In fact, I still find it difficult now all these years later.”

Back at home Pippa was admitted to an eating disorders clinic. However, instead of getting better, she discovered how to lose more weight by reducing her insulin. It wasn’t long before she was also firmly in the grip of diabulimia – a life-threatening eating disorder that occurs when someone with type 1 diabetes reduces or stops taking their insulin to lose weight.

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The years following that initial admission have been very tough. Caught in a cycle of repeated hospital admissions Pippa was eventually moved into supported accommodation where she has been for the last two years. Today, however, she is in a much better place both physically and mentally. Positive, newly recruited as a Diabetes UK volunteer, and looking to the future - Pippa is eager to share her story in the hope that she can help others who may have experienced similar.

Phaedra Perry, Regional Head Diabetes UK South West, said: “We are very proud that Pippa has bravely chosen to tell her story to highlight the mental health problems too often experienced by people living with diabetes. The daily struggle for perfection in managing diabetes day-in-day-out can have real and lasting implications on a person’s mental health.

“At least four in ten people with diabetes experience emotional or psychological problems which, in turn, leads to poorer health outcomes and a reduced quality of life. This means it is essential that the emotional wellbeing of people with diabetes forms an integral part of their care throughout their lifetime.

“If you, or a loved one living with diabetes needs support, please contact your diabetes specialist team or call the Diabetes UK helpline.”