What Is Diabetes Stigma?

What You Can Do to Reduce Societal Assumptions

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"Diabetes stigma" is a term used to describe negative assumptions and judgments about people with the condition. Often, people with diabetes are subject to blame and are shamed because people without a proper understanding of the condition assume that it is a self-inflicted disease. 

People with obesity and diabetes are also fat-shamed and assumed to have caused their condition because of their weight. These judgments are detrimental to the health of those who cope with diabetes and can lead to low self-worth, lower quality of life, and psychological disorders such as depression.

This article discusses the misconceptions and harms diabetes stigma has on people with the condition and what can be done to change how people view diabetes and those who have it. 

Tattooed man with diabetes checking his blood sugar

Examples of Diabetes Stigma 

Diabetes stigma can take on many forms. For example, a person with type 2 diabetes may shame themselves after being diagnosed. Family, friends, and peers may also contribute to diabetes stigma.

Medical professionals can also further drive diabetes stigma by mistreating patients with the condition. When that happens, the care a person receives for their diabetes can be compromised because the view of the disease, even by medical professionals, is skewed.

When a person experiences negative feelings because of the stigma, they may feel ashamed of themselves for eating certain foods or skipping a workout. People around them may judge them harshly for the same things.

Even strangers can perpetuate the stigma surrounding diabetes, and many people with the condition are subject to negative remarks or judgmental looks when administering insulin in public.

The Effects of Negative Associations with Diabetes

Some other negative things people who have diabetes may face because of the stigma include:

  • Discrimination at work
  • Travel limitations
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships or relationships
  • Difficulty in adopting children
  • Issues with treatment out of fear of using medications in public or around their peers

Misconceptions About Type 2 Diabetes

One common misconception about type 2 diabetes is that people who are overweight or have obesity will automatically have or develop diabetes. While obesity can be a risk factor for diabetes and many other health conditions, it is only a small piece of the puzzle regarding diabetes development.

Another common misconception is that people cause their own diabetes by overeating unhealthy and sugary foods and are too lazy to take care of themselves physically. This harmful stereotype comes from a lack of knowledge surrounding how the disease develops and places blame when there is no reason to.

Consuming too much sugar does not directly cause diabetes, nor does being “lazy.” Many people who eat high-sugar diets and lack regular exercise do not go on to develop diabetes. These are associated risk factors but do not determine the probability of developing the condition. 

People who take insulin for their diabetes may also be more prone to feeling the stigma because people assume that those who need insulin failed to manage their disease effectively without it. This is a myth and further reflects a lack of understanding surrounding diabetes.

Effect on People With Diabetes 

The stigma surrounding diabetes has several adverse effects on people with the disease. These effects can include:

  • Perpetual feelings of fear surrounding their condition, how it's viewed, and treatment
  • Anxiety
  • Embarrassment
  • Self-blame and guilt
  • Low self-worth
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Issues with self-management that cause the disease to become uncontrolled
  • Increased risk for complications such as retinopathy, sexual dysfunction, and heart disease
  • A decreased quality of life

Mental Health and Diabetes Stigma

Because of the stigma attached to diabetes, people who have the condition are often more prone to psychological distress and develop depression or anxiety. People with diabetes are almost three times more likely to develop depression and 20% more likely to develop anxiety. Less than half of people who develop depression following a diabetes diagnosis end up seeking treatment.

Origin of Stigmas

Diabetes is not a new disease, and texts dating back 3,000 years mention the condition. The differentiation between type 1 and type 2 diabetes didn’t occur until roughly the fifth century when type 2 diabetes began to develop more often in wealthy people.

At that time, people with wealth ate better and were less active than those who were not. Because people had fewer testing and diagnostic tools available and less information surrounding how diabetes develops, they could have been led to assume that diabetes was caused by simply eating more and moving less. That being said, there is no literature marking the beginning of diabetes stigma.

How to Reduce Stigma 

There are ways that people can reduce the stigma. The first is through medical education. By learning more about diabetes, what causes it, and how those with the condition cope and treat the disease, people may be able to learn how to be more compassionate.

Current studies have shown that using anti-stigma interventions in the healthcare system when training new medical professionals leads to decreased psychological distress caused by the stigma in individuals with diabetes.

The Power of Language to Reduce Diabetes Stigma

The use of language when describing diabetes can help or further advance the stigma. Language with negative connotations, such as calling someone diabetic as a describing word, can be replaced by referring to them as someone with diabetes.

The term "diabetic" assigns a person’s identity as their disease instead of saying they have it. People with diabetes are not their disease. Language to stop the stigma should be positive, strength-based, and focus on hope, inclusion, and respect.


Self-advocacy can be an effective way to eliminate or lessen the stigma of diabetes when speaking to others about your condition. While it may be difficult to overcome depression and other negative feelings associated with the disease, it’s important to speak up for yourself when dealing with people who reiterate the stigma.

Self-advocacy can be effective in many scenarios:

  • When dealing with friends and family
  • When speaking about your condition within your community
  • During medical visits to your healthcare provider

As an individual, to address the stigma, you can seek out support resources to help yourself or your close network learn more about diabetes and the management of the disease. That can mean seeking help from family, friends, or those you work with when it comes to certain accommodations you may need because of your condition and what you need to ensure you are able to self-manage effectively.

Within your community, you can speak to people about the myths and educate them on what is real and fake regarding diabetes information. Getting in touch with local government can also help to end the stigma by lobbying for better policies in regard to diabetes care, treatment, and support.

Group Advocacy 

Group advocacy spreads the message surrounding diabetes stigma to more than those in your inner circle. In group advocacy, you can use your voice to educate those more prone to holding onto the stigma because they do not understand what causes diabetes.

You don’t have to have diabetes to be a group advocate. You have to understand the condition, its impact on people who develop it, the factors associated with developing it, and the self-management of the disease.

Group advocacy is designed to change the way people view diabetes on a grander scale, such as nationally or globally:

  • Nationally: On a national level, group advocates can get involved in organizations and nonprofits funding research for diabetes. Advocates can speak to government officials or other influential parties that control federal laws or policies regarding diabetes care or coping.
  • Globally: Internationally, the best way to be an advocate is to spread awareness as far-reaching as possible and to assist with fundraising efforts that support services that help people with diabetes gain access to proper care.


While it's difficult to pinpoint precisely when the diabetes stigma started, it has been going strong for a long time. While it continues to improve with advancements in education and resources, there is still a negative assumption about people with diabetes and their condition. People with diabetes are more likely to develop depression and anxiety because of the stigma surrounding their disease, essentially decreasing their overall quality of life even further.

Diabetes stigma continues to be wide-reaching and can even be perpetuated by healthcare professionals. To ensure that the stigma continues to reduce, people with diabetes can practice self-advocacy, and those with or without the condition can get involved in group advocacy efforts.

A Word From Verywell 

Having diabetes isn’t always easy, but dealing with the stigma of it all can make it feel impossible. You may have been exposed to snide remarks or mistreatment because of your disease, but it’s important to remember that it is not your fault. You did not impose diabetes on yourself, nor do you need to feel shame regarding your diagnosis. You have diabetes, and that is only one small piece of who you are as a person.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does diabetes discrimination look?

    Diabetes discrimination can be blatant, like openly telling someone diagnosed that they should have done x, y, or z, and doing so would have ensured they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in. However, it can also be more subtle, like giving someone a dirty look when they give themselves insulin in public or asking them if they should eat something they’re about to enjoy. Both types are harmful.

  • Can you have type 2 diabetes if you’re not overweight?

    While being overweight or having obesity is one of the many risk factors associated with developing diabetes, not all people who are overweight will have diabetes, and not all people who have type 2 diabetes are overweight. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • Why is diabetes a global health issue?

    Many complications are associated with diabetes. The health issues that can arise in people with diabetes can be severe. In addition, there is a significant economic impact on people, healthcare systems, and even countries; thus, it remains a global health issue.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. American Diabetes Association. Myths about diabetes.

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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and mental health.

  6. The Diabetes Council. The history of diabetes.

  7. Dickinson JK, Guzman SJ, Maryniuk MD, et al. The use of language in diabetes care and education. Diabetes Care. 2017 Dec;40(12):1790-1799. doi:10.2337/dci17-0041

  8. Hilliard ME, Oser SM, Close KL, Liu NF, Hood KK, Anderson BJ. From individuals to international policy: achievements and ongoing needs in diabetes advocacy. Curr Diab Rep. 2015 Sep;15(9):59. doi:10.1007/s11892-015-0636-z

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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.