How to Find and Connect With a Diabetes Mentor
Support can come in many forms—an understanding partner, an empathetic friend, or a compassionate doctor. But there’s something special about sharing your diabetes life with someone on the same journey, says Joanne Rinker, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, director of practice and content development for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Whether you call this person a diabetes mentor or a “diabuddy,” the purpose is the same: to share experiences and guidance from someone who also lives with diabetes.
Forging such a connection is a real asset: A peer with diabetes who’s been through a diabetes education class can provide support for things that aren’t always discussed with health care professionals. “They have the same experiences and can relate and have conversations about solutions that are more real world,” Rinker says. You may want to commiserate about a bad day, get advice on tricky family situations, or have a safety net when you’re feeling low.
Mentors can also talk about strategies they’ve used to successfully manage their diabetes, says Veronica Brady, PhD, MSN, FNP-BC, BC-ADM, CDE, a diabetes nurse practitioner in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. And speaking to someone who has diabetes often makes people more receptive to advice. Tony Farrenkopf, PhD, chair of psychology at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, who has lived with diabetes for over 30 years, has observed this in his own practice. Once a patient realizes Farrenkopf speaks from personal experience, he sees a noticeable change in demeanor. “I can tell they’re listening,” he says.
Anna Norton, 42, who has type 1 diabetes, struck up a relationship with her current mentor two years ago through DiabetesSisters.org, an online and in-person support network for women with diabetes. Norton, who’s the CEO of the organization, says she and her mentor text daily, sharing everything from screenshots of their continuous glucose monitor (CGM) graphs to advice on female issues. For instance, Norton is looking to her mentor to learn about diabetes management as she approaches menopause.
Other times, Norton has turned to her mentor for advice and support in dealing with unexplained blood glucose spikes and dips. “It’s really helpful,” she says, “because you don’t feel so alone.”
The tricky part about a diabetes mentor is actually finding one. A good first step: Tap certified diabetes educators. “Ask them specifically if there is another person with diabetes that they can connect you to,” says Rinker. “They’ll typically be good at fitting the right people together.”
Christel Aprigliano, 46, became a mentor this way. In her younger years, Aprigliano, who has type 1, struggled with diabulimia, a form of disordered eating that involves withholding or giving too little insulin in order to lose weight. Knowing this, her educator asked if she’d be willing to talk with a young woman struggling with the same issue. “[My mentee] needed to hear from someone on the other side that it’s OK to seek out professional help and that you’re going to be OK,” says Aprigliano, founder of The Diabetes Unconference, a peer-led event that focuses on the psychosocial aspects of living with diabetes. It’s been three years, and the two still keep in touch. “I get giddy when I see how well she’s doing.”
Another way to meet a mentor: Attend diabetes support groups or education courses in your community. The group leaders often know a lot of people and can put you in touch with a mentor, says Rinker. Or call your local American Diabetes Association office to ask for a recommendation.
“[Most] people in support groups are the kind of folks that are open and willing to share,” says Brady. In fact, she says, people with diabetes in general are usually happy to help each other out. So no matter where you turn for mentorship, there’s a good chance you’ll find the perfect match.
Looking to Become a Mentor?
4 Mentorship Considerations
When searching for a mentor, consider these four important factors, says Joanne Rinker, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, a director of practice and content development for the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Make sure your potential mentor has been through a diabetes self-management education class with a certified diabetes educator (CDE) to ensure you’re getting sound guidance. To find out, politely inquire if she’s attended a program, and ask her to tell you more about it. If she hasn’t, and you’re in a support group setting, ask her to identify someone else in the group who has.
2. Communication Style
If you like to talk every day but your mentor prefers a weekly chat, the relationship may not work. Or maybe your mentor prefers to meet in person, but you like to interact online. Discuss these issues once your mentor has agreed to work with you, and be open to compromise if you’re a good fit in other ways.
3. Peer Review
You’ll likely get the most out of a relationship with someone who is on a similar path. For instance, if you have type 2 and need to add insulin to your regimen, find someone with type 2 who uses this medication.
4. Life Stage
If you’re going through a life event (such as a pregnancy), consider a mentor who has experienced the same or a similar event. But leave treatment advice to the medical professionals.
Be a Better Mentor
Talk about your experiences and offer support. If a treatment question comes up, the appropriate response is to encourage your mentee to speak with his or her diabetes care provider.
Never offer medical advice to your mentee. You’re providing support so your mentee can get the appropriate medical advice from his or her doctor.