'Burnt-out' diabetes patients get help

Mr Abdurrahman Zaidi and student Lee Lay Xin are both members of Touch Diabetes Support, which helps diabetics come to terms with their condition through activities such as hiking and support group sessions.
PHOTO: 'Burnt-out' diabetes patients get help

SINGAPORE - Several years after being diagnosed with diabetes in Primary 6, Abdurrahman Zaidi began to experience a "burn-out".

He was tired of managing his condition, especially the daily insulin injections before meals to keep his blood sugar in check.

"The start was okay. But you start to get more depressed after a while," said the 20-year-old who is waiting to start national service. "I thought, Why don't I stop injecting, eat whatever I want, and just lead a normal life?"

Experts say it is high time more attention is paid to the psychological and social problems caused by diabetes, rather than just the medical aspects.

In March, the Health Ministry published updated clinical practice guidelines for diabetes, with a new chapter on self-management and psychosocial care, which can include counselling or taking part in support groups. The guidelines were officially launched earlier this month.

This new element of the guidelines is important because it affects "how much the patient takes responsibility for his or her own... condition", said senior consultant Winston Kon of Tan Tock Seng Hospital's endocrinology department.

Diabetes is a growing problem here. In 2004, 8.2 per cent of the population had diabetes. In the latest National Health Survey of 2010, the figure was 11.3 per cent.

The condition is also linked to complications like kidney failure, gangrene and even amputation.

Diabetes patients who go through amputations "are very homebound, and they get depressed", said vascular surgeon Benjamin Chua of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). "It's a huge societal and social cost - for the family as well."

Non-profit organisation Touch Diabetes Support (TDS) - an arm of Touch Community Services - has been helping diabetics come to terms with their condition for the past 20 years. Most of its members are relatively young and typically suffer from Type 1 diabetes, which is less common here. Type 1 is most commonly diagnosed in childhood.

The updated clinical practice guidelines also include a chapter on caring for adults with Type 1 diabetes for the first time.

"While the vast majority of people with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes, we felt that Type 1 diabetes should not be overlooked," said the head of SGH's endocrinology department, Dr Goh Su-Yen, who was involved in drawing up the new guidelines.

At TDS, members like Mr Abdurrahman bond over support group sessions and outdoor activities such as hikes. "Learning to accept the disease is not so easy," said TDS senior manager Julie Seow, adding that she has seen many who are in denial.

But others like Secondary 4 student Lee Lay Xin, 16, have come to terms with their condition. She was diagnosed at age five and joined TDS a year later.

"I joined a lot of activities, and gradually got to know a lot of diabetics," she said. "And I had this thought, Why must I let diabetes control me, when I can control it myself?"

linettel@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on July 30, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.