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What it's like to live with Type 1 Diabetes at university

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Do you know the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

There is a lack of awareness surrounding Diabetes, particularly Type 1, as many people assume that it is the same as Type 2. While Type 2 diabetes can be caused by weight, age or a generally unhealthy lifestyle (though genetics can also play a role), the cause of Type 1 Diabetes is less clear. Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, where beta cells in the pancreas (which produces insulin) are wrongfully targeted and killed by antibodies which the immune system created. It is largely connected with genetics, though doctors are still unclear as to why some with the gene develop it and others don't.

According to Diabetes UK, someone is diagnosed with Diabetes every two minutes. Though it’s starting to become more understood in schools and various other places through charities spreading awareness and fundraising, too many are still unaware of how serious Diabetes can be.

Type 1 Diabetics are reliant upon insulin to control high blood sugars, (otherwise known as hyperglycaemia), which is injected, or more recently can be delivered by a pump, which aims to reduce the number of injections needed. They can also experience low blood sugars, (hypoglycaemia), and need fast-acting sugar to treat them, for example, orange juice. Both exhibit various symptoms and can be exhausting, particularly when levels fluctuate between the two.

Diabetes can be really difficult to monitor, and, from my experience with my sister, parents play an important part in helping to manage the condition. Additionally, drinking alcohol can have serious consequences (extreme hypos/hypers) with Diabetes if blood sugars are not managed properly and checked throughout the night - it’s easy to lose awareness of levels. Although it’s not an integral part of university life, it is certainly a social aspect which many Diabetics will face during their time as a student. It can be nerve-wracking having to inform your new flatmates on all the aspects of the condition too.

The charity, Diabetes UK, recently started a campaign called UNIType, which aims to raise awareness and tell students stories about dealing with Diabetes during University.  One student opened up about being granted week-long extensions, and, when he felt too ill or exhausted from a hypo/hyper to attend lectures, received academic support and was able to watch lectures online, which is generally in place at most universities.

A student has given us her account of managing Diabetes in first year:

Alex, Swansea University

‘When I first came to University, I was a little bit unsure about how I would control my Diabetes as I had a very high HBA1C (overall blood sugar level). I wouldn’t have my family to nag me to check my levels and take insulin. However, over the course of first year, I have become so much more independent. I no longer feel so caught up in the psychological impacts of the disease. I have understood that, in order to carry on living this happy life, I have to keep good control over my blood sugars and take my insulin – fact.

Saying this, there have been many difficult moments. I knew I’d have to tell my flatmates about my Diabetes, but something made me feel uneasy about it. I didn’t want them to think of me as weak in a way. When I first told them, there were some comments like, ‘Diabetes, that’s not serious’ that was a kick in the teeth, but, after a while, I realised people didn’t mean it because they didn’t fully understand Diabetes. After a period of watching me, they became more interested, and now they know what to do when I go hypo or hyper and when we go out drinking. Overall, I’m glad that I told them as it has made me feel a lot safer knowing that if something happened to me that was out of my control, (eg. an extreme hypo/hyper), they’d know what to do.’

As shown above, it is difficult for flatmates to initially understand as they are not educated about Diabetes, especially Type 1. But ultimately, it is a necessity to trust them and tell them about it – like what your symptoms are for hypos/hypers- so they know how to identify them and know how to deal with them. They are very likely to be helpful and supportive once they learn more about the condition.

Here are some other ways you can manage Diabetes at university:

  • Especially if you are self-catered, don’t fall into the ‘lazy students’ way of eating, for example, campus food that can make carb counting difficult with lack of information. Downloading apps such as Carbs and Cals can help you keep on top of how much insulin to inject. Furthermore, blood sugars can soar with a bad diet, which has long-term consequences, so a balanced diet is very important
  • Check your levels regularly during long lectures/long periods of concentration, and factor in how much activity you’re doing on a night out, especially when drinking
  • Encourage healthier activities with friends and flatmates (eg. sports societies or gym to keep on top of a healthy lifestyle)
  • Create your own routine – for example, working out how you are going to refrigerate stored insulin
  • Register with your Campus GP and found out what you’re entitled to, in terms of extensions and extenuating circumstances
Although Type 1 Diabetes is a serious and sometimes seemingly life-consuming condition, it doesn’t stop you from gaining independence at university. The more aware people become, the easier it will be to tell flatmates – and, if they’re your real friends, then supporting you will come naturally to them.

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