Published on 21 July 2014

An urgent need for greater awareness of diabetes has been called for in schools following a report that found children with the condition were receiving inadequate support and insensitive treatment from teachers.

The Young people with diabetes and their peers report, led by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Jo Brooks, warned that young people with diabetes should not be singled be out for unwanted attention and that they have the facilities they need, or there could be worrying long-term consequences for youngsters health.

The goal of the study was to explore attitudes towards diabetes from the point of view of teenagers with diabetes and their friends. A series of interviews took place and there were also focus groups in which secondary school pupils discussed the illness.

The research examined the lives of young people with type 1 diabetes, the most common form of chronic illness among young people, from the age when they are starting to be more independent.

Unlike type 2 diabetes, it is not lifestyle-related, but the numbers of people with type 1 diabetes is increasing in the UK. It is currently estimated that of the 3 million people in the country who have been diagnosed with diabetes, 15% have type 1 diabetes, which means that the body cannot produce insulin. Constant medication and checks in blood sugar levels are required, although a normal life can be led otherwise.

Dr Brooks, a psychologist with the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Applied Psychological and Health Research, said: “Previous research that has been done with young people has been mainly about their families and the home setting. There has been very little done on diabetes management in a peer context.”

Among her concerns was the danger that teenagers with diabetes might become self-conscious about their condition and neglect their medication, and that ignorance among other pupils might lead to bullying.

Dr Brooks said that she had been shocked to discover the absence of an overall policy towards diabetes management within the secondary education sector. Some schools – such as Huddersfield’s Almondbury High, which participated in the research project – were exemplary in their provision, but policy varied massively from school to school.

Dr Brooks said: “Some pupils were getting tremendously good support from their teachers, and their friends were also providing better support because they knew about the condition. But there were other places where there clearly weren’t any policies in place that were being adhered to.”

Dr Brooks learned of several cases of pupils with diabetes pupils receiving unsympathetic treatment from teachers, not being allowed to leave the classroom if they felt unwell because of their condition. “Or they might need to eat something in class, to keep up their blood sugar levels, and they would be told off,” she added. “Findings from this study suggest that more education about diabetes amongst young people is needed, but also, encouragingly, that this would be welcomed by young people themselves. We hope to use this work to develop a larger scale project to increase awareness of diabetes in school settings amongst both pupils and teaching staff.”

The researchers who joined the project led by Dr Brooks were: Professor Nigel King and Dr Warren Gillibrand (University of Huddersfield); Dr Nicky Kime and Liz Webster (Leeds Metropolitan University); Dr Fiona Campbell (Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust); Professor Alison Wearden (University of Manchester).

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