Helping Diabetes Patients with Mental Illness

"Living with diabetes is not easy. The chronic illness demands daily, often around-the-clock, attention to the intricate balance between exercise, eating and medication. Add a mental illness diagnosis and it can seem impossible.

Two UCSF School of Nursing students have developed a program to educate mentally ill patients who are diabetic or at risk of developing diabetes about how to stay healthy. They are piloting the program at GLIDE Health Clinic, a nurse-managed health center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood where patients also often suffer from homelessness and addiction.

 “How can we expect these patients to organize a blood glucose log when they’re worrying about where they’re going to get their next meal?” said Shawna Mitchell Sisler. “The techniques that the majority of the population uses probably won’t work for them.”

Sisler, together with classmate Erin Lutes, created a program that encourages group learning. Once a month, a handful of patients meet to discuss aspects of living with the disease. Last month, a pharmacologist came in to talk to them about herbal remedies. Next month they will participate in a cooking demonstration, based on a suggestion from one of the participants who never learned how to cook.

“Creating a sense of community for this group of people is important,” Lutes said. “When you’re with other people who are experiencing the same thing you are, it helps you develop a sense of worth.”

Nearly 26 million Americans over the age of 20 have diabetes, which is the seventh-leading cause of death today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 35 percent of all Americans are considered "prediabetic," meaning their blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough for them to be considered diabetic.