How we talk about diabetes – by Bob Swindell

Blogger and Diabetes UK trustee, Bob Swindell was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2013. Here he talks about why language matters and the power of good communication.

The theme of Diabetes Week 2018 is #talkaboutdiabetes, so it seems like a good time to discuss the words we use when we talk about diabetes.

Words spoken about diabetes are more than just words; they reflect thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. They have the power to build or lower our self confidence, to stigmatise us or to help us improve our self care.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” said Joseph Rudyard Kipling, Annual Dinner, Royal College of Surgeons: February 1923

Living with diabetes is tough

Few people with diabetes would disagree that day-to-day life with diabetes can be tough – many of us have experienced times when it feels overwhelming. Like lots of others, I depend on the support from friends, family and healthcare professionals to get me through the tougher times.

Unfortunately, sometimes the care, encouragement and advice we need comes mixed up with words that feel hurtful, make us cross, undermine our confidence or just make us feel bad. When I asked members of the Diabetes UK support forum about this, over 35% of them had experienced this, and when I asked the same question of the audience at the Diabetes Professional Conference insider event earlier this year the number was even higher – well over 60%.

While almost entirely inadvertently, some of the things that have been said to me about my diabetes have left me feeling unmotivated, criticised and uncomfortable. The exact words which make each of us feel bad varies a lot from person to person, but the first example that comes to my mind is being asked “Are you the diabetic?” by a doctor. Being referred to not by my name, but as no more than my health condition, undermined my confidence badly. I felt unable to speak to the doctor about what I was experiencing, what part diabetes played in my life away from the consulting room and most importantly, what I needed to help me manage the condition.

Since my diagnosis I have also received all kinds of unsolicited dietary advice, most often “should you be eating that?”. This has come from loved ones and strangers alike. While always well intended, none of it has ever made me feel anything other than criticised and self-conscious.

Recognising that #LanguageMatters

With examples like these from a wide range of people living with diabetes in mind, the NHS is launching a set of recommendations about the use of diabetes language by healthcare professionals. Written together by a group of people living with diabetes, healthcare professionals and the representatives from diabetes charities (such as Diabetes UK). It is supported by a review of scientific research about the use of language in medicine.

The document sets out how the language used by healthcare professionals can have a profound impact on the feelings of people living with diabetes, and how in turn this affects how well they can manage their diabetes.

What should we do?

While the publication is aimed at professionals, it is a good opportunity for all of us who live with diabetes to think about how we use language ourselves. As well as a set of principles for best practice, the document sets out some great example of good communication. With this in mind, these are my top tips for talking about diabetes:

1. Be aware that the language we use can lower anxiety, build confidence, educate
2. Use language to be supportive of individuals with diabetes
3. Avoid language that can be stigmatising, hurtful and undermining of self care
4. Remember that individual people with diabetes are free to talk about themselves as they wish, and we should always respect personal views on the use of language

Above all, remember that #LanguageMatters, so it is worth thinking about the words we use when we talk about diabetes.

Share and read more tips on talking about diabetes
This Diabetes Week we want to make it easier to have those tricky conversations about diabetes. Share your tips on social media using the hashtag #TalkAboutDiabetes. You can also find out more, share your tips online and read tips from other people with diabetes on our Diabetes Week page.

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