There is a dominant narrative that the period from your late teens to early twenties is simply about being carefree, trying new things, and finding your place in the world. This account is not entirely wrong, but it is quite often incomplete. Early adulthood might be filled with new and exciting experiences, but it is also an anxiety provoking time for a lot of people. Figuring out who you are as an individual, while also trying to fit in with your peer groups can be stressful; getting lost in the sudden lack of daily routine found in a lot of college and university timetables can be unsettling; while, uncertainty about your future education and career path can be overwhelming.
Adding a health condition, like diabetes, to going away to college or university can intensify all these ‘normal’ stressors and add extra worries related to illness management. Research has identified three key areas that tend to affect how people are able to manage their diabetes when at university: social issues (including peer pressure related to alcohol, smoking, and drug use, but also related to dietary restraints); academic barriers (including irregular schedules, lack of time to manage various pressures, and financial issues); and emotional/psychological barriers (including stress, negative feelings related to having diabetes, isolation, and loss of parental involvement). As one client I had described, “Everyday I go to class I don’t just put my books and notes in my knapsack, but diabetes too—and sometimes diabetes feels like the heaviest out of all of those things.”
The key to making it through all these stressors is to establish some balance between coursework, socializing, and diabetes before you get to a point that any one of those areas of your life becomes too much to handle. The following points can help you start out with a more balanced approach and foundation for your time at a college or university:
Find your support network.
Having at least a few people that know about your diabetes and understand enough about the illness that they can provide support if you need it can go a long way in helping you adjust to life in university or college. As you start to meet new people while at school, keep in mind who might be a good ally in helping you deal with diabetes when going out, attending classes, or for those days where diabetes is just being more difficult. You might also want to see if your school has a social group for students living with diabetes (like the chapters supported by Diabetes Canada or College Diabetes Network), where you can meet others at your post-secondary institution who are also living with diabetes.
Build self-care into your routine.
Between varying class times, getting readings and assignments done on time, social commitments, and maybe even a part time job, your schedule can be quite hectic and varied in post-secondary. If you can make a commitment to maintain some sort of self-care routine as much as possible within you schedule, it will help you keep on top of your diabetes care and help you feel more grounded throughout your time at school. You can read more about diabetes and self-care in the post, “What Does ‘Self-Care’ Mean in the Context of Diabetes?”
Learn about your stress.
Stress manifests and affects everybody differently. Some people love the adrenaline rush of a last minute project, while others find it completely overwhelming. It is important to be aware of what too much stress looks like for you and how best to manage it. Every stressful situation that you encounter is an opportunity to reflect on what worked for you and what didn’t, so that you can apply that knowledge to future situations. Learning about how stress affects you can also help you recognize when you are experiencing distress to the point of overwhelm, so that you can reach out to your support network for help. (You can learn more about recognizing stress through the University of British Columbia’s Health & Wellness post on Stress & Anxiety.)
Plan for bumps in the road.
If you have concerns about how you will manage all the demands of college or university while also dealing with the burden of diabetes, you are not alone. Diabetes Hope Foundation has webinars and other materials for teens and their parents to learn more about the transition into early adulthood. While, College Diabetes Network also has a great booklet for students with diabetes and their parents about planning for some of the more common scenarios that people face while away at school. Planning ahead of time will not only make those bumps in the road go smoother, but will also help alleviate some of the anxiety you might be feeling heading into the school-year.
Register with Student Accessibility Services.
Part of planning for bumps in the road can be registering with your school’s student accessibility services. Every school has an accessibility office that can help you get accommodations during the academic year. There are a variety of accommodations that you can request for diabetes—from allowing you more time to finish a project because of illness, to letting you bring food and drink into exams, to giving you priority access to certain units in student residences. College Diabetes Network provides a comprehensive list that can help you figure out what accommodations you might want to consider requesting.
Know your local mental health supports.
There is a lot of emphasis around planning how you will take care of the physical side of diabetes while away at school, but don’t forget to plan how to manage the emotional side of diabetes. In addition to building up a support network of friends and family that you can count on, know what mental health resources are available at your college or university before the start of the year. It may be that you never need to access those resources, but if and when you do it will be easier to seek out those supports if you already know where to find them. Most colleges and universities have counselling departments where students can access mental health supports for free. Additionally, many university extended health insurance plans provide some coverage for private counselling, so you might want to familiarize yourself with what is and isn’t covered under your plan at the beginning of the year. (You can read more about finding a therapist here: “What You Need To Know When Looking For a Therapist”.)
To further help you to plan ahead and assess your own emotional health, download and keep handy this quick wellness checklist. It allows you to easily ensure you are looking after all of your needs.
Other articles you might find helpful from insulinpumps.ca:
Looking for more information about living with diabetes while at college and university? Here are some resources and suggested readings to get you started:
Organizations that provide information and materials related to the transition to college and university while living with diabetes:
“Student Guide to Surviving Stress and Anxiety in College & Beyond” from Learn Psychology
“Living with Too Much Anxiety? Resources, Results, Relief” from AnxietyBC
“How Universities Are Helping Students with ‘Invisible’ Disabilities” from Maclean’s Magazine
“The Best Way My Parents Helped Me Prep for College” From T1 Everyday magic
“Tips for Parents of College-Bound Students” from Diabetes Forecast