Is Your Newly Diagnosed Loved One in Diabetes Denial?

Here’s how to help a family member accept a new diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and start embracing self-care.

Susan Amoruso
Reviewed by
Philip Levy, MD

“I don’t have time to do all the things the doctor says I need to do.”
“My diabetes isn’t serious.”
“I only have to take pills, not shots.”
“One bite of this won’t hurt.”

If your partner, parent, child or other loved one has recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, these phrases may sound familiar. After all, denial is a common reaction to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. And you may be surprised to hear it’s not all bad—a brief period (a couple of weeks) of denial can actually help the newly diagnosed cope with the fear and stigma surrounding diabetes.

“It’s normal to have that period of grief, where you don’t want to think about it,” says Susan Guzman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at the Behavioral Diabetes Institute in San Diego, a nonprofit organization dedicated to tackling the psychological needs of people with diabetes. But because diabetes is easy to ignore—says Guzman, “It’s like a fire burning inside you, out of control without smoke alarms.”—the denial can go on too long.

“When it keeps your loved one from taking action, then it becomes dangerous,” explains Guzman, whose own father waited six months before getting proper care.

So what can you do? Your first instinct may be to scare some sense into your loved one. Yet this tactic can backfire. “People can get scared into immobility,” says Guzman, who partly blames this on the media attention given to the dire consequences of diabetes. “People get the message that diabetes is a death sentence—and that doesn’t make them want to hurry up and acknowledge it.” Instead of playing on your loved one’s fear, try the following steps to help them move past denial and into a manageable diabetes action plan.

4 ways to help your loved one accept a type 2 diabetes diagnosis

Tell them it’s not their fault.
“There’s a stigma that goes with type 2 diabetes. People think it’s caused by being fat, sedentary, eating too much junk and not taking care of oneself. People are embarrassed and closeted about it— a huge part of why they don’t take action.” Shift the shame and blame off your loved one’s shoulders by saying something like, “It’s not your fault you inherited genes that make you prone to diabetes. But let’s think about ways we can fight back. I’m here to help.”

Spot depression.
People with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are almost twice as likely to develop depression as those who don’t have a chronic medical condition. That’s a problem since depression can be an obstacle to good diabetes self-care. If your loved one exhibits symptoms such as low energy; trouble sleeping; feelings of worthlessness, sadness or guilt; and a loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable, say, “I feel like you haven’t been yourself lately, and I’m afraid you might be depressed. Let’s talk to your healthcare provider about it.” Help your loved one start small. Drink more water, watch less TV, get more exercise, eat more fiber, control portions—the list of lifestyle changes for people with type 2 diabetes can make anyone’s head spin. “In the standard diabetes education class, you can count up to 155 behavior changes that are recommended,” says Guzman. “But you don’t need to do all 155 things to have well-managed diabetes.” So help your loved one pick just one or two of those changes. Once those new behaviors stick, tackle the next couple. Each mini-success will keep your loved one motivated to do more.

Make changes together.
Don’t just tell your loved one that they have to eat right or exercise—do it yourself, too! Start the tradition of “Diabetes-Friendly Fridays” and work together to experiment with new healthful recipes for dinner. Or sign up for a charity walk together.

April 2013