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All Minds: Diabetes

CN: anxiety, depression, bereavement, non-graphic eating mention, non-graphic description of suicidal ideation, misuse of medication, professional dismissal of self diagnosis.

Introduce yourself a little.

I’m Astrid, a third year English student at Jesus College and the SMC Disabled Students’ Officer. I row (badly) for Jesus and also have a YouTube channel where I try and work against some of those StudyTube channel stereotypes that are like ‘Study With Me For 20 Hours!!!’ because I think they’re really unhealthy to promote. I want to show it’s possible to be at Cambridge and be ill and still do well and have fun.

Which experience do you wish to represent by sharing your story about mental health?

I’m a Type 1 Diabetic and have really felt the intersection of my medical condition and my mental health conditions. I think disabled students’ struggle with mental health is sort of seen as secondary to their physical conditions (because one is more ‘visible’ or manifests itself in way that’s easier to acknowledge) whereas I think my experience has them on a similar plane, if not the MH affecting me more.

Share as much or as little as you would like about your mental health experience.

I’ve had a whole host of mental health conditions. Pre diabetes diagnosis my mental health wasn’t brilliant, but I was only 12 so I didn’t really have the understanding to express that unhappiness.

In year 8 I started having panic attacks and these continued regularly until about year 11 (though I still have a couple a term – I’m much better at managing them now) and during this time I started feeling really low.

This feeling reached its rock bottom in year 13 when my mum passed away and I really struggled – I had about 40% attendance at school because I couldn’t get out of bed or would go straight to the college nurse and sleep there or sit and drink tea.

I went to boarding school so it was far too easy for me to just go back to bed after a lesson if I started feeling low.

Cambridge hasn’t been the best environment to get better. I was on the wrong medication for the whole of second year which made me really suicidal and unstable, on top of which I was being picked on for having mental health difficulties which created a downwards spiral.

Now I’m on no medication – just trying to get through third year, before trying medication again once I’ve graduated because I really can’t afford to be on the wrong medication again. I tried to get a diagnosis for bipolar/BPD but the mental health services told me I wasn’t “ill enough” and that I’d have to be sectioned for that kind of diagnosis. – I wrote about that experience here https://www.varsity.co.uk/features/17509.

How do you feel this cross section has affected your mental health?

So diabetes is tricky because it’s a condition that you yourself have to control and in a really precise way.

It’s not just injecting insulin four times a day, it’s having to choose how much with the knowledge that if you get it wrong you’re going to feel really rubbish in the short term, and might have a hypo or do damage to your organs in the long term. I found that really difficult to get to manage. I was diagnosed as diabetic a month after my 12th birthday.

When I was first diagnosed I would regularly find it impossible to sleep because my anxieties about having hypoglycaemia in the night and not waking up and being able to treat it were so bad. I still have pretty bad hypo anxiety but I can sleep now without feeling scared before I do. I also struggled with the ‘why me’ feeling for the first year (and I do sometimes still cry about it) and a feeling that my body was somehow broken. That made me feel quite low for a while.

Diabetes care is very target based – it’s all about getting your average blood glucose levels to a range that is ‘normal’. Again, that kind of thing brings its own problems, especially as you can’t realistically get it 100% perfect without spending most of your day doing diabetes care. Even things like the temperature can affect my blood glucose levels so it can be really difficult.

Letting go of my perfectionism so that diabetes didn’t take over my life was difficult. I think it’s also worth noting that diabetes lends itself to issues surrounding food. Food does become the enemy because it’s what’s causing you to have to take injections, it’s what’s raising your nice blood glucose averages. I became quite paranoid about food but never to an extreme. Lots of diabetics suffer from a condition called diabulimia where they eat but don’t take their insulin which can do serious damage. Finally, my two conditions are really linked – my symptoms for low blood glucose are like that for anxiety, my symptoms for high blood glucose are like that of my depression so it becomes really tricky to disentangle the two.

How do people respond when you talk about your experience and how it relates to mental health?

I think people forget that the two are linked and that my diabetes has more of an effect on me than just causing me to have to take 4 injections a day – it’s something constantly on my mind and constantly affecting me.

Why is it important to you to talk about & share your story?

When I came to my first diabetic clinic at Addenbrookes, the consultant asked me about my mental health. He explained that it’s common for diabetics to suffer from mental ill health and we chatted about the aspects of my mental health that stem from the condition. It was a really validating experience because I didn’t realise so many people felt that way.

What advice would you give to people who experience this double-edged sword of mental health issues combined with possible struggles of being part of an underrepresented group?

Talk to other members of that group because you could find that what you’re experiencing is shared by many members of that group and it’s really reassuring to know that you’re not alone.

What is your no.1 self-care tip?

Early nights! I often get into bed at 9 and listen to a podcast before I sleep (and if I’m struggling to sleep, just listen to them until I can) – top recommendations are Reasons to be Cheerful and No Such Thing as a Fish.

If you were to choose the top three things that make you happy, what would they be?

My dog, the friends who are still there for me despite my conditions making me tricky to love at times, McDonald’s cheese bites.

If you could pick one thing to do to cheer up a friend what would it be?

I’m a huge believer in the cup of tea and chat. It always works wonders and it’s quite a low-pressure situation so if your friend is struggling, just getting them to the kitchen and talking can often be manageable for them and make a huge difference.  

If there is anything else you would like to add then please feel free to share.

Remember to reach out for help if you’re struggling, people care more than you think they do.

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us!

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