Young people living with a chronic illness like type 1 diabetes (T1D) often experience anxiety which – if not treated – can quickly spiral downwards into depression. However, the link between diabetes and depression remains poorly understood and under-researched. Depression is often viewed as a natural outcome of “diabetes distress” – the emotional burden of living with the disease.
Dr. Patricia Pelufo Silveira, a Montreal-based researcher at McGill University and The Douglas Research Centre, is challenging this assumption. Her research examines the heightened risk of diabetes-linked depression, its impact on the development of mental-health resiliency among youth, and the possibility of a shared origin story – specifically the role of insulin function in the brain and increased risk for depression.
Dr. Silveira is exploring which combinations of factors may increase our risk for developing chronic diseases and mental illnesses, both the ones we inherit (genetic) and the environmental (epigenetic) ones we are exposed to in the womb and early childhood, specifically, those that increase exposure to excessive stress hormones and blood-sugar levels, among others.
“Adolescents with T1D are learning to manage their condition, while also adapting to puberty, peer group pressure, autonomy from their parents and identity formation,” explains Dr. Silveira. “This can create psychological distress that negatively affects their blood sugar levels and their self-care.”
Indeed, metabolic abnormalities are associated with a high risk of depression in youth living with T1D. For example, T1D is considered an underlying contributor to dyslipidemia, a condition in which abnormally high levels of lipids are found in an individual’s blood, which may also be linked to the higher incidence of depression.
For those living with T1D, mental health needs to be taken as serious as physical health. The prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) symptoms among people with diabetes is approximately 10 percent – double the prevalence in individuals without a chronic illness, and increases the longer a person has diabetes.
According to Dr. Silveira, young people with T1D should have routine screening for psychological issues and regular assessments following their diagnosis. The early investigation of depression-like symptoms would not only encourage them to maintain their self-care, but also translate into significant cost-savings to the health sector. As well, regular visits with trained psychologists in the field would help reduce the likelihood of diabetes-related complications and possibly prevent suicidal incidents in the long term.