Helping to prevent diabetes in African Canadians

Missy Searl decided it was time to seize control of her health and her future because of her risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“I am overweight and have close relatives with diabetes on both sides of my family,” says Mrs. Searl, who lives in Eastern Passage in the Halifax region. “I will turn 50 this year and just became a grandmother. I want to be here and healthy to watch my grandson grow – I don’t want to take insulin and medication for the rest of my life.”

Mrs. Searl was not sure that she could change her habits without help. She is now getting that help through a culturally specific project called The Matter of Black Health – Health Coaching to Live Well in Nova Scotia.

The Matter of Black Health addresses chronic disease prevention by supporting behaviour and lifestyle changes for adults of African descent living in Nova Scotia. A project of Diabetes Canada and the Health Association of African Canadians, the initiative is supported with funding from the Nova Scotia government and Medavie Health Foundation.

The primary focus of the project is type 2 diabetes as African Canadians are at greater risk of type 2 diabetes than the overall Canadian population.

Health Coach Dawn Shepherd (on the right) gives Missy Searl tools and motivation to help prevent type 2 diabetes. SUPPLIED

Health Coach Dawn Shepherd (on the right) gives Missy Searl tools and motivation to help prevent type 2 diabetes. SUPPLIED

Since early August, Mrs. Searl has been supported by health coach Dawn Shepherd. “I need someone to be accountable to besides my family,” Mrs. Searl says. “I began running and doing yoga earlier this year, so I already had started to improve my activity level. My big challenge was healthy eating, how to fight cravings at night. When I struggle, remembering Dawn’s advice is like having a ‘good angel’ on my shoulder urging me to make the right choices.”

Ms. Shepherd, who has a background in public health, physiotherapy and training elite circus artists, currently provides health coaching to eight individuals in The Matter of Black Health project.

“As health coaches, we are supporting behaviour change with individuals to improve their health outcomes, for example, by working with them to create a personalized wellness plan,” says Ms. Shepherd.

“At the beginning, we sit down and talk about their goals. It’s client-led, so the client decides what they want to work on, [such as] physical activity, healthy eating, sleep habits and managing stress. Part of my role is to work with them to develop strategies for overcoming obstacles.”  

Benefits from health coaching

The Matter of Black Health in Nova Scotia incorporates the Live Well! health-trainer model, based on a model from the UK. A three-year study from the University of New Brunswick’s Health Evaluation Research Group found that Live Well! clients demonstrated:

  • 27% improvement in the ability to accomplish certain tasks
  • 21% increase of improved self-described health
  • 23% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption
  • 19% increase in moderate or vigorous physical activity

The coaches are all individuals of African descent and as Ms. Shepherd explains, “This coaching model is Afrocentric, responding to the health needs of individuals living within the various communities, including their history and lived experiences.”  

The province has developed other health programs for this population, with research showing that people are less likely to access health services, in part because of cultural and social barriers, and lack of trust.

“The coach model helps extend the trust towards the system and for me that has been the most immediate benefit. If you’re not yet able to trust your dietitian, maybe you can trust your health coach who trusts them,” says Ashley Harnish, health services manager in primary health care for the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

“We have done a lot of work on the front end where the health coaches have really gotten to know the clients and the communities, and at the same time, the health-care providers [in order] to build that trust on both sides. They’re a bridge between the system and the client, and we see that as a path towards better health outcomes.”

One in three Canadians already has prediabetes or diabetes, and many don’t know it. Find out your risk - it’s easy: click diabetestest.ca and take a simple test as part of Diabetes Canada’s “What’s Your Risk?” diabetes awareness campaign. The good news: Take action now, and you could potentially prevent type 2 diabetes.