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On July 8, 2020, we held our second virtual town hall meeting series on Staying Close While Apart: Remote Diabetes Social Support.  This week's town hall featured Michelle Litchman, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah and diabetes social media influencer Austin Fuerst (@everyday_t1d), with the discussion facilitated by Korey Hood, PhD.

Key takeaways:

  • What is social support?

  • Why is social support so important for people with diabetes?

  • Where can people with diabetes get social support?

  • How has social support changed during the pandemic?

  • What's the “best” mix for people seeking social support in terms of in-person and online?

What is social support?
“Social support, to me, means that you are getting something [to help] beyond those tasks that are part of diabetes and that makes living with diabetes more manageable,” said Dr. Litchman.  “For some, that means having more information that helps them make diabetes decisions; for others, it's emotional support that they can receive that helps keep them going. It can also be someone who helps pick up a prescription or creates a healthy meal that you like, or someone who is willing to be your exercise buddy.” There are different types of people who can fill those supportive roles, like family members or friends.  In Dr. Litchman's research, she saw that family members sometimes walk a line between care that's perceived as “nagging” or “control” versus what's actually helpful and supportive, and that providing more education and resources for caregivers can help make interactions more supportive.  She said that while health care providers play a role in social support to varying degrees, they tend not to be engaged in the day-to-day aspects of diabetes. This is why people with diabetes often need extra social support.
Dr. Litchman's research is targeted towards peers, people who also have diabetes who can be really important in the lives of other people with diabetes.  The power of shared experience, tips and tricks of living with diabetes, is where her research has really focused.
Why is social support so important for people with diabetes?
I think it's easy to burn out with diabetes, “ said Dr. Litchman.  “When you have so many tasks that are required of you daily, and there's so much mental energy that's going towards this one thing [diabetes], it's nice to get that extra support. We know that diabetes distress can be common, and diabetes can be overwhelming. Having other people who can be there to support you during that process, and around a condition that doesn't go away, is really important.”
Where can people with diabetes get social support?
“I think that everybody with diabetes, their personalities, are very different, and it makes sense that there are different types of support people need.  You know not everybody is a social media person, so for those who are not focused in the online space, they probably prefer more in-person [support],” said Dr. Litchman.  Considering the influence of COVID-19 on the ways that people can safely connect, people are somewhat forced to do more virtual meet ups, or connecting via text, or making phone calls. Technology has become the tool for accessing social support, even for those who prefer not to engage in social media. And for people who have had significant stressors as a result of COVID, support systems that were in place pre-pandemic may have become less of a priority for people dealing with different crises.
Austin recommended social media staples, like Facebook and Instagram, for peer connections. He also recommended looking into diabetes conferences that are taking their content to digital platforms, as well as in-person support groups that have gone virtual.
How has social support changed during the pandemic?
Austin Fuerst, diagnosed at the age of two and living with diabetes for over 22 years, has lived through many of the diabetes tech advancements, like insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors.  When he was younger, diabetes camp was his main source of social support.  “I was with 135 other diabetics who were doing life, just like me. And so every year, I looked forward to it because [those campers] knew exactly what you're going through, exactly what diabetes is, what a low blood sugar is … and for the longest time, that was my social support.”
Austin recognized that camp isn't an option for all people with diabetes, and he feels that social media plays a role in helping connect people, especially now, as COVID-19 has moved almost all social interactions to a digital forum.  To find support now, during the pandemic, Austin feels that sharing common experiences helps create connection, and that social media is a great place to find peers and connect. “Putting myself in the position of trying to help other people has helped me make more friends with similar goals,” he shared, saying that sharing his diabetes-related goals and stories online has helped him find support digitally.
What's the “best” mix for people seeking social support in terms of in-person and online?
“It depends on the individual,” said Dr. Litchman.  “A lot of times, people will need [social support] for a short period of time … and then they feel like they don't need as much support, so they back off.” The ebb and flow of diabetes may bring that person back to needing social support, though; Dr. Litchman feels that meeting people in-person helps strengthen online connections, even if the relationship continues exclusively online afterwards. She notes that “just because two people have diabetes doesn't mean they're automatically going to be ‘best friends,” citing the need for other common bonds to reinforce the relationship. She echoed Austin's perspective about shared goals, adding that it's important for people to share what they are looking for from social support (“I just need someone to listen”).