What are the social support needs of young people with type 1 diabetes?

A study from the US has examined helpful and unhelpful aspects of social relationships

By Sienna Russell-Green

It can be hard to manage type 1 diabetes. But for a young adult, it may come with even more challenges. It is a time in life with major change, such as leaving home to study or work, starting an intimate relationship, or having an active social life. It is a time when relationships are highly valued.

Research has shown that family and friends may be both helpful and unhelpful when it comes to managing diabetes. But little is known about how young adults use their relationships to help their management.

A study in the U.S. has looked at ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ aspects of social relationships in the daily lives of young adults with type 1 diabetes.

Twenty-nine young adults took part in a brief survey and an interview. Just over half were women (55%). The average age was 23 years.

Researchers found 4 clear themes:

1 What is helpful?

Activities such as offering reminders for self-care tasks and providing support, made managing diabetes better and/or easier. This usually came from parents and romantic partners, who were often around. However, young adults said that simply being in the presence of others who were familiar with their diabetes was helpful, regardless of whether or not they needed help.

2. What is not helpful?

Co-workers and friends (i.e. less close relationships) were often present when the young adults were managing their diabetes. But they were not very helpful. They had little understanding of diabetes and/or how to manage it. Young adults said it was not the specific behaviour of others that was a problem. Rather, there were daily social barriers to managing their diabetes well. For example, social gatherings and unplanned events involving food were unhelpful.

3. Telling others about diabetes

Participants shared details of their diabetes with ‘helpful’ people. But they only shared basic information to ‘unhelpful’ or ‘uninformed’ people, such as co-workers or classmates. This was because they did not want to burden others, they wanted to avoid stigma, or they wanted to be independent in managing their diabetes.

4. What influences helpful and unhelpful behaviours?

People who knew more about diabetes were more likely to be ‘helpful’ to the young adults. People who knew little about diabetes (e.g. strangers or co-workers) were more likely to be ‘unhelpful’. Participants did not directly link this with telling others about their diabetes.

A few participants said that ‘no one’ was involved in their diabetes management. Authors commented that this may be a limitation of the questions in the survey about others’ involvement. Or it may show that young adults are very independent in managing their diabetes.

In conclusion, young adults with type 1 diabetes may benefit from interventions that encourage talking to trusted others and planning to avoid social barriers.

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Reference: Gray AL, Campbell MS, Berg CA, Wiebe DJ. Qualitative analysis of helpful and unhelpful aspects of social relationships among adults with type 1 diabetes. Diabetic Medicine, 2021;38:e14441 doi:10.1111/dme.14441 

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