Speaking through diabetes: Rethinking the significance of lay discourses on diabetes

Emily Mendenhall*, Rebecca A Seligman, Alicia Fernandez, Elizabeth A. Jacobs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


The disproportionate prevalence of Type II diabetes mellitus among the poor suggests that, in addition to lifestyle factors, social suffering may be embodied in diabetes. In this article, we examine the role of social distress in narratives collected from 26 Mexican Americans seeking diabetes care at a public hospital in Chicago. By linking social suffering with diabetes causality, we argue that our participants use diabetes much like an "idiom of distress," leveraging somatic symptoms to disclose psychological distress. We argue that diabetes figures both as an expression and a product of social suffering in these narratives. We propose that increasingly prevalent chronic diseases, like diabetes, which are closely associated with social disparities in health, may function as idioms for psychological and social suffering. Such findings inform the anthropological literature and emerging clinical and scientific discourse about the roles of stress and psychological distress in diabetes experiences among underserved groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)220-239
Number of pages20
JournalMedical Anthropology Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2010


  • Depression
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Explanatory models
  • Idioms of distress
  • Mexican Americans

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology

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