Specialists from Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) are raising awareness on the interrelationship between diabetes and issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as giving advice on steps to improve mental health.

There are more than one million people living with diabetes in the UAE and research has linked the disease to an increased risk for depression, anxiety and eating disorders, according to Dr Safdar Naqvi, a consultant physician and diabetologist who is Medical Director of ICLDC, a Mubadala Healthcare provider.

Significant depressive symptoms affect around 1 in 4 adults with type 1 and type 2 diabetes

Physical and Mental Health Affect Each Other Directly

Dr Naqvi says: “Physically, poorly controlled blood sugar can directly affect your emotions by causing behaviour changes and mood swings, while mentally, being diagnosed with a chronic disease like diabetes in itself could lead people to experience a range of emotions, from denial and anger to stress, grief, and sadness.

“At ICLDC we have a psychologist on our multidisciplinary team as it is important that patients get the right treatment physically and mentally because these two aspects affect each other directly. Not all people with diabetes will suffer from depression and anxiety, but if they do and are left untreated, these conditions can make diabetes worse.”

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While 1 in 4 adults with diabetes has significant symptoms of depression, a diagnosis of depression is reported less often. Dr Naqvi ’s colleague, psychologist Dr Sawsan Halawi, says estimates of depression in diabetics vary due to differing definitions of ‘depression’,

Dr Halawi says: “There is also a distinct issue called Diabetes Distress, which is recognised as a separate disorder from depression. With diabetes distress, patients feel overwhelmed by the burden of the condition and the need to continuously manage it. Patients sometimes also develop anxiety over what could happen if they don’t manage their condition properly, worrying about the complications that could arise.”

Mental Health Issues Require Treatment

Dr Naqvi points out that it is essential that these mental health issues are treated as they can compromise how well patients stick to their treatment programme, which in turn increases their risks for serious health complications. Depression, for example, can hamper the ability to make wise lifestyle choices such as eating healthily and exercising, which further affects treatment.

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Dr Halawi says there are several warning signs for depression. “You should speak to your doctor if you have had a low mood for two weeks or longer, accompanied by three or more of the following symptoms: loss of pleasure; change in sleep patterns; change in appetite; trouble concentrating; loss of energy; nervousness; guilt; morning sadness or suicidal thoughts.”

Dr Naqvi says that in addition to psychological therapy, people with diabetes can try solutions such as exercise to help combat depression and anxiety issues. It not only helps people avoid or manage diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels but also has numerous psychological benefits.

“Exercise helps mental health as it leads to the release of mood-boosting endorphins and serotonin, but also it also produces psychological benefits as it’s a social activity and helps people feel empowered over their diabetes.

“This is why we push exercise alongside other healthy lifestyle awareness campaigns. We also hold an annual walkathon to encourage people to get moving and realize the physical and mental benefits of walking,” she says.