September 10, 2020
Diabetes Football Community: fighting stigma through peer support
Football can be an unforgiving sport. One community is helping people with diabetes to overcome the challenges and achieve their personal goals.
By Chris Bright
After 17 years of living with type 1 diabetes, I decided the moment had come to try and make a difference for other people living with diabetes. Until that point, most people who interacted with me did not realise that I was living with a chronic and potentially very serious health condition. In the main, this was because I did not want them to know. I have a passion for football. I have strived to play it at the highest possible level and it has had a central role in my life. Yet the sport I love heavily influenced my decision to keep my diabetes hidden.
Football can be an unforgiving sport in which perfection is celebrated and weakness often frowned upon. The sport encouraged me to hide my diabetes because, whether I liked it or not, the condition has stigma attached to it that can lead to negative, misguided perceptions that a person with diabetes is weak, somehow less able than others. The masculine, macho culture embedded in football from the top down to grass roots-level pushes players to mask anything that could be perceived as a weakness by players, coaches, fans or the media.
I carried this negative feeling around with me like extra baggage. It may have weighed me down but I also took it as a motivation to achieve as much as I could and push past people’s perceptions of what is possible with a chronic condition. I knew that one day I wanted to do something to help ensure that other people with type 1 diabetes would not have to suffer in silence with the kind of feelings I’d had to cope with.
Football can be an unforgiving sport in which perfection is celebrated and weakness often frowned upon.
In October 2016, I had the honour of representing Wales in Futsal for the very first time, becoming the first person with diabetes to ever do so. This was a moment that I will always cherish and never forget. It also made me realise that my own success could serve as an example to help others overcome diabetes to achieve their goals.
When I was hiding my diabetes, the condition had a mental hold over me. Representing my country was a victory that released me and allowed me to take control. I felt that it was time to speak up and give something to other people with diabetes who may be facing some of the same challenges I faced.
In 2017, I set up the Diabetes Football Community to provide peer support, information, guidance and inspiration for people living with diabetes who have a passion for football. Our goal is to inform the general public and encourage people with diabetes to play football. The platform has allowed me to open up about how diabetes has affected my life and encourage others to share and seek support to manage and overcome the mental challenges associated with the condition. Our community now engages people throughout the world and I am proud of what we have achieved. Notably, the creation of an all type 1 UK Futsal team, which represented the country at DiaEuro, and a conference dedicated to showcasing athletes with type 1 diabetes.
The impact of the community platform led me to dig deeper into a number of questions related to the reasons it was set up and attempt to provide an academic foundation for why it continues to grow, support and enhance the lives of the people with whom it engages. Over a three-year period, I completed my Master’s degree and focused my final thesis on analysing the impact of stigma on members of the Diabetes Football Community living with type 1 diabetes. My research involved analysing online and social media content and interviewing members of the community.
For people with diabetes who closely identify themselves with football, secrecy is a coping mechanism to avoid the stigma associated with being perceived as different.
One of the key findings highlights the detrimental effect that the prevailing football culture has on the willingness of people with diabetes to speak openly and publically about their condition. For people with diabetes who closely identify themselves with football, secrecy is used as a coping mechanism to avoid the stigma associated with being perceived as different from the image of masculinity and strength that football commonly projects. This closely resonates with my own experience and has made me question the impact that the sport I love has had on my mental health, choices and behaviours. Keeping diabetes hidden has been linked to an increased risk of poor self-management, which can then have a negative impact on longer term health.
My research suggests that significant challenges remain for people with type 1 diabetes engaged in sports where the predominant culture has little tolerance for perceived weakness. However, I feel and hope that it also provides an opportunity to change the narrative around diabetes-related stigma and improve understanding of the impact it can have on the lives of people affected by the condition.
The greatest view comes after the hardest climb. When you live with type 1 diabetes, the climb is always a challenge. But when you achieve your goal, it is a moment to remember or indeed to celebrate. We in the Diabetes Football Community hope we can help many more people with the condition to reach their personal summit and enjoy such moments!
Have you achieved success despite your diabetes or have you had to keep your diabetes a secret because of possible stigma? Share your story by submitting a comment below.
Chris Bright is the founder of the Diabetes Football Community project. He has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1999 and has a degree in Sports Studies. He has played football for his county, university and as a semi-professional.