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Dr Emma Berry on being a queer type 1 diabetes researcher

Dr Emma Berry is a JDRF-funded researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. She is running a research project to develop a digital psychosocial wellbeing tool for young people with type 1 diabetes in the UK. Here, Emma discusses what it’s like being a queer researcher and how LGBTQ+ and mental health issues can affect people with type 1.
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Jo Watts 28 July 2023

Dr Emma Berry

What does it mean to identify as queer?

Identifying as queer can be about someone’s gender, their sexuality or both. The label can give people permission to express themselves more intuitively. It is an umbrella term which covers anyone who is adopting a different identity to straight and cisgender. Cisgender means the gender you have the same gender as the one which was presumed when you were born. Identifying as queer can help people who share similar experiences of not quite fitting in find and support each other.

What being queer means to me

I identify as queer, which I find is a useful label for me because it allows me to be more in tune with my own gender identity. Queer is also a fluid term that helps me be the most authentic version of myself. It helps me choose how I present myself as a person, how I communicate with others, and the roles I see myself in from work to relationships.

Benefits of being a queer researcher

Experiencing struggles finding my own identity has ignited a passion for me in researching subtopics within diabetes. I’m more aware of other factors that could be contributing to someone’s self-care and diabetes management. Having personal experience helps me be more empathic and compassionate. I can build a rapport with people and validate their experiences.

Young people and LGBTQ+ issues

Mental health issues are more pronounced in younger people as they try to find their place in the world. This generation also has a greater awareness and understanding of being LGBTQ+. Young people often have more opportunity to explore their identity than older people – but that isn’t to say that older generations don’t experience LGBTQ+ issues. Older people are experiencing a growing awareness and opportunity that they may not have had growing up with a narrow range of labels and identities. It’s important to be aware of these needs in older adults as well as supporting the many younger people experiencing issues surrounding their gender and sexuality.

LGBTQ+, puberty and type 1 diabetes

Puberty is already a challenging time for young people and grappling with your identity on top of this can lead to mental health challenges. If you then add the extra challenge of trying to manage your type 1 diabetes, it can become very overwhelming. These issues look like an interrelated tangle in the brain. This is why we need mental health and physical health to be integrated in a holistic approach.

Creating an open environment in diabetes clinics

Despite an increase in awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, there is still a lack of comprehension of what these issues may look like. So, if young people are struggling with their identity, they may not feel able to open up about them unless they’re invited to. They also may have experienced stigma about how they identify.

Digital psychosocial wellbeing tool

Psychosocial (phycological and social) aspects of someone’s life can affect how they manage their type 1 diabetes. I am developing a digital psychosocial wellbeing tool to help people with type 1 share experiences and struggles like these with their diabetes clinicians.

The tool will take a measure of mental health and unpack it to reveal the underlying factors, such as how ethnicity and sexuality might intersect. Ideally, the tool will become embedded in the healthcare system, which will help to push forward the integration of psychosocial and physical wellbeing. I will develop the tool with young people with type 1 to make sure it features things that are important and relevant to them.

Empowering young people with type 1

There is currently a lack of opportunity for young people to navigate their clinical appointments. I want the psychosocial wellbeing tool to empower young people, especially if they’re feeling insecure. The idea is for it to be used as a diary, recording growth and strengths instead of just the negatives. I envisage that these responses will provide the clinician with an overview to streamline the conversations in the short time available in appointments. In this way, the tool should be a resource helping both young people with type 1 and their healthcare professionals to improve mental wellbeing.

Resources for support

If you are affected by any of the topics in this blog piece, the following organisations may be able to offer you support.

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