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Diabetes: what nurses can learn from peer support groups

Young, newly diagnosed adults value a positive approach that makes them feel less isolated

Young, newly diagnosed adults value a positive approach that makes them feel less isolated

Sugar Buddies support group meet-ups include social outings, such as bowling or a coffee morning
Sugar Buddies support group meet-ups include social outings, such as bowling or a coffee morning
Picture: Twitter

Newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2013, Kelly Carden felt she had nowhere to turn for psychological and emotional support. She was 31.

As a result, the following year she helped set up Sugar Buddies, which provides peer support for people with diabetes and their carers in Hampshire.

Sugar Buddies diabetes peer support group logoThe diagnosis also motivated her to study adult nursing at Southampton University. ‘It kick-started me to apply the year afterwards,’ says Ms Carden. ‘I felt life was far too short and none of us know what’s around the corner.’

Soon after qualifying in 2017, she took on a development role as a diabetes specialist nurse.

Fellow Sugar Buddies member Naomi Parnell was diagnosed with diabetes 13 years ago, in her late teens. A former English teacher who then went into marketing and is currently doing voluntary work, she lives in Bournemouth and has been instrumental in expanding Sugar Buddies into Dorset.

Why did you set up Sugar Buddies?

‘After I was diagnosed, I was sent lots of stuff by a diabetes charity through the post, but it was all so negative,’ Ms Carden recalls.

The information she received included the statistic that life expectancy for someone with diabetes was 15 years shorter than for the general population. ‘People would tell you about a friend’s relative with diabetes who had died.’

Originally signposted to existing support groups by her healthcare team, she found they were predominantly full of much older people. ‘It wasn’t what I needed,’ she says.

Fortunately, her healthcare team also put her in touch with other newly diagnosed people; a few of them came together to discuss the idea of setting up a new support group, specifically for young people newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

‘I’d never been to anything like it before. I’d always thought a support group would be older people talking about going blind and losing their limbs’

Naomi Parnell, Sugar Buddies member

The need for peer support was obvious: ‘While healthcare professionals knew some of what people were going through, they didn’t have the real-life experience,’ says Ms Carden.  

Sugar Buddies has since opened up to help those with type 2 diabetes, as well as carers, and extended to include small specialist groups – Bump Buddies for those with gestational diabetes and Pump Buddies for those using insulin pumps.

Sugar Buddies members climbed Snowdon in Wales in 2018
Sugar Buddies members climbing Snowdon in Wales Picture: Twitter

How does the group work in practice?

At the beginning, the focus was on face-to-face support, with members meeting once a month or so. Now it encompasses social media too, via a Twitter group and a closed Facebook group, which has almost 400 members.

The emphasis is on friendly support, positivity and celebrating achievements, with a variety of different events, including coffee mornings, ice-skating, cycling, walks and peer-led conferences.

‘Last year a group of us climbed Snowdon for charity,’ says Ms Carden. ‘It was an amazing day. One of those taking part thought he would never be able to achieve it, but because of the peer support, motivating and encouraging him, he made it to the top.’

For Naomi Parnell, finding the group was a new and welcome experience. ‘I’d never been to anything like it before,’ she says.

Kelly Carden, diabetes specialist nurse and Sugar Buddies co-founder
Ms Carden: ‘After I was diagnosed, the 
information I received was all so negative’

In the past, she had refused to join a support group. ‘I’d always thought it would be older people talking about going blind and losing their limbs,’ she says.

‘I’d only ever met anyone with type 1 diabetes at a hospital event. But I went for a walk with a few others and it was so normal and great to see people checking their sugars, making jokes and sharing tips. It wasn’t all about type 1, but friends going on a walk.’ 

Is there still a stigma around diabetes?

For Ms Carden, stigma remains very much a factor. ‘Diabetes is tarred with the idea that you’re to blame and are putting a burden on the NHS,’ she says. ‘Of course, we all know that whatever type you are, it doesn’t mean you’ve caused it yourself.’

Unsolicited advice and questions are also common. ‘I’ve had people asking me whether I should be eating something,’ says Ms Carden. ‘I find it quite rude. But people feel it’s okay to judge because I have diabetes.

‘I even had a nurse ask me whether my diabetes was caused by eating too many sweets as a child. You’re not immune from judgements or stigma – some people are ignorant.’

‘Some have never tested their blood sugar or injected in front of others before. With other group members they feel they can do it without being judged’

Kelly Carden, Sugar Buddies co-founder and diabetes specialist nurse

Ms Parnell has also experienced similar unwelcome reactions. ‘Someone screamed once when I got out my insulin pen,’ she says. ‘And I’ve had people say “don’t do that, it’s disgusting”.

‘I’ve learnt to flip it around now. If someone has asthma and they need their inhaler, you wouldn’t ask them to leave the room.’

What are common fears among people with diabetes?

Many people living with diabetes worry about doing any form of sport, says Ms Carden, fearing what will happen if they have a ‘hypo’, when blood sugar levels dip too low.

Others don’t want people to know they have the condition.

The support offered in a peer group situation for people with diabetes can help address isolation and fear related to the condition
The support offered in a peer group for people with diabetes can help address isolation
and fears related to the condition Picture: iStock

‘Some have never tested their blood sugar or injected in front of others before,’ says Ms Carden. ‘Here [with other group members] they feel they can do it without being judged.’

Ms Parnell admits that she used to be so ashamed of having diabetes she hid it for as long as she could, with many of her friends not knowing.

‘In my personal life I didn’t know anyone else with type 1,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t until this year, through the group, that I actually made some friends who also have the condition. It’s completely changed how I view it and how open I am about it now.’

Naomi Parnell, a member of Sugar Buddies diabetes peer support group
Ms Parnell: ‘I realised I wasn’t the only
one feeling or thinking something’

Are there different benefits from online and face-to-face support?

For some, chatting online can be a gateway that helps them build up to face-to-face contact.  ‘A lot don’t feel confident to come out and meet people; they’re not going out,’ says Ms Carden.

‘Someone may say, “I’d really like to come to an event, but I’m too nervous”. And the next thing you know, people are offering to meet them beforehand.’

What difference does peer support make to people living with diabetes?

The key difference is that it gives people hope, Ms Carden believes. ‘It shows that you can live very well with diabetes. It’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, diabetes has a huge impact on your life and changes your lifestyle but that can be positive too. You can end up achieving great things.

‘Without Sugar Buddies I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have met so many people who inspire me to do what I do.’

‘You realise we’re all going through similar experiences – and just talking can help you get back on track’

Ms Carden

Meeting others with type 1 is helping Ms Parnell come to terms with her own condition. ‘I realised I wasn’t the only one feeling or thinking something,’ she says.

‘It immediately breaks the shame of it. Now I don’t feel isolated anymore and someone understands me. There is a power of empathy you get with peers.’

As a specialist nurse, do you still gain support from the group for yourself?  

Ms Carden worried that once she became a diabetes specialist nurse, her role in the group might change, with others seeking her clinical expertise. However, that has not happened.

‘Members won’t ask me those questions,’ she says, adding that everyone in the group is ‘very clear’ that members do not answer medical queries.

She admits that her professional role can mean she is slightly uncomfortable asking questions of the group, but she knows the support is there when she needs it.

‘You are a person too and you can get stuck,’ she says. ‘There are times when it becomes difficult and you need to speak to someone or meet up. Then you realise we’re all going through similar experiences – and just talking can help you get back on track.’ 


Find out more

Sugar Buddies website

Email Sugar Buddies


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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