Fear Tactics & Psychological Harm

Melinda Seed writes for Twice Diabetes
Melinda Seed writes for Twice Diabetes

It’s Day 2 of Diabetes Blog week and we’ve been asked to talk about the other half of diabetes, the psychological side of diabetes. There’s already been some great posts from a personal perspective about this, for example, Georgie’s blog at Lazy Pancreas or Tim’s blog. For the full list click here.

I’d like to talk about the psychological harm some diabetes organisations are imposing on the very people they’re supposed to be helping-those with diabetes.

We’ve all seen those ads based on fear, the horror stories of complications and the frightening statistics telling us to avoid or “manage” diabetes. Frank blogged about this last week, Type 1 Writes.

So what’s the problem, shouldn’t people avoid diabetes and/or avoid complications? Well yes, and if doing either of those things was as simple as giving up smoking then the campaigns might be justifiable BUT it’s not that simple and that’s where the problems start.  You see, if you get a terrifying message and yet you have little power to change the situation that gives rise to the terrifying consequences then you are likely to act in a negative way.

So if you have type 1 diabetes there’s nothing that can be done to reverse it and despite even the most diligent efforts and best technology it isn’t possible to entirely normalise blood sugars. In these circumstances the research supports that these fear-based messages cause people to engage in negative or health-defeating behavior. See for example, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3678850/ , and Goldenberg J.L., Arndt J. The implications of death for health: A terror management health model for behavioral health promotion. Psychological Review. 2008;115(4):1032–1053.

So these fear messages have a negative effect on people with diabetes. It appears that diabetes organisations such as DiabetesNSW who have recently been unapologetically tweeting mortality statistics without any context or background either ignore this or they Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 8.50.36 PMare quite happy to cause harm to the people they’re supposed to represent in hopes that they are having a positive impact on those who are at risk of diabetes.

Is this ethical? Are you happy to be a member of, or have your tax dollars support such behaviour?  I always thought the first principle of intervening in health was “do no harm”. Guess they’ve abandoned that notion. Shame.

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