#mentalhealthawareness – The difficulties faced by the visually impaired.
Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and I wanted to interrupt my weekend flow of blog posts on the Blindfold Challenge to talk about some of the difficult issues facing the blind and visually impaired in today’s society.
There are more than 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss, 35,000 in Dorset alone. Of these, around 340,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted, 5000 in Dorset.
Just imagine being told you have a visual impairment, that can’t be treated, how extremely difficult this must be to come to terms with. How on Earth do you process the fact? There is a fair amount of information out there to indicate that rates of depression and anxiety are heavily elevated among those who experience sight loss.
I am a guide to visually impaired runners and my contact through travelling to, from and during a race is one where generally I do not want, or need to explore, the finite details of said runner’s private life. I am their eyes while I take charge and my one and only responsibility is to guide them carefully with both of us acknowledging, through a mutually designed and understood language of commands, encouragement and physical gestures. This catalogue of words, phrases or by a tug on a 600mm tether that links us, needs to be pitch perfect and highly accurate whether walking to a race, during a race or walking back from a race. I have to keep them safe and return them back to their homes in one piece. It is therefore unusual for me to know what goes on in their lives once my responsibility ends.
I do not believe there is enough resource and time offered to an ever growing section of a physically healthy society that struggles with mental illness.
Consider then if you will, those impacted by sight loss, the significant emotional and psychological impact on their lives and the lives of those associated. The fear of being blind and the isolation, loss of self-esteem, earning potential and loneliness.
The Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded have joined forces with the Mental Health Foundation Scotland to publish new research that examines the impact of depression and anxiety in the visually impaired.
Nearly 400 people with sight loss took part in the research which found that 85% of those who took part had experienced challenges to their mental health as a result of their visual impairment. However, two thirds (63%) indicated they had not been offered mental health support such as social prescribing, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help them manage their long-term condition.
No one in this country should be left alone to cope with mental illness.
Most definitely, the visually impaired, as a small cross section of society, shouldn’t be left to cope alone with the emotional turmoil of going blind and neither should their partners and families. More one-on-one support is badly needed and there has to be an increase in counselling facilities to cope with the impactful emotional distress the disability causes. Peer and support groups for round table discussions on shared experiences and methods for overcoming fears and anxieties will help our visually impaired friends to combat such inclusive depression and to feel more in control of their lives.
Why cannot more of these facilities become available and easily accessible? The Dorset Blind Association (DBA) has been offering the most excellent service it can to the blind and partially blind for over 100 years. It is a charity and it is doing its very best, but it has to compete with 1000s of other charities and NGOs all with great stories to tell. The British public are generous as a nation, but there are so many demands placed on private income these days. There has to be more central Government support specifically aimed at better mental health for everyone struggling in their daily lives.
Leah Cross is Community Support Manager for The Dorset Blind Association:
“When someone is given a diagnosis that their sight is failing, their immediate thoughts turn to what they will not be able to do any longer. How will I manage? How will I get from A to B? What about my family, my income etc?
So many deeply worrying thoughts will come to the fore pretty soon after a diagnosis.
Later on, as people start to ask for help, that feeling of being useless becomes the issue. The feeling that they are becoming a burden. Not being able to independently make decisions and just get on with the task in hand. The feelings of worthlessness affect people more than the physical issue.
If you are in a relationship and you are feeling low or depressed, then that will be hard for your partner to deal with too.
Nearly all visually impaired people will suffer from poor mental health at some stage after diagnosis.
At DBA we have a counselling service which can help our members to process some of these thoughts and find ways to communicate what they are really feeling. Peer support is very useful to give our members ideas on how to regain not only their independence but also their dignity.”
And then of course there is sport and in particular running.
We all know that healthy exercise is good for our mental health.
As a nation we must do more to encourage everyone to do more exercise and partake in healthier activities, not just for their physical well-being, but also for good mental health.
Dave Privett is Social Inclusion Officer at The Dorset Mental Health Forum:
“The blind and partially sighted share many of the same struggles that face those with poor mental health. Isolation, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression to name a few. Disadvantaged when attempting to find employment which then can make people feel like outcasts.
Too much time alone can give rise to negative thoughts both past and present. This inevitably leads to each and every day becoming more of a struggle. However, an activity of any kind, a little or a lot enables people to reconnect. It takes courage to do something new, meet new people but the benefits are huge. When active you forget your usual worries and focus on the now, a moment in time. You will meet people, build friendships, experience new environments, enjoy the fresh air and the sounds around you. No longer will you be counting the hours alone but looking forward to what is ahead of you in the future. Your general physical and mental health will greatly improve which bodes well for your life ahead. Involvement in activities with others enables you to be recognised, feel valued and you will feel more at ease with yourself. You will begin to create new positive memories and most importantly you will feel alive”.
The days will no longer drag on until family or friends return from work. Being active can provide you with the life you want to live.
Parkrun UK every Saturday throughout the year, at 09.00 with 100s of venues to pick from, has to be one of the greatest of inventions of all time. It promotes healthy exercise for all without any judging whatsoever, it is all about encouragement. Every entrant completes the 5k course in any time they wish and you get to record your personal achievements each week.
Senior citizens to kids, over-weight and under-weight, any nationality and of course the running speedsters are all attracted. Everyone can take part and the brilliant thing is, that it is completely free. The family that is parkrun offer so much to help people’s mental health and let me tell you, the feeling afterwards can be quite euphoric. David Edwards whom I regularly guide has completed over 200 parkruns, made many friends and fully appreciates what a boost he gets to his mental health from competing each week.
DBA used their networking skills to put us together: As part of their counselling and support facilities they were worried that at the age of 67, David could no longer run regularly. His vision was deteriorating further and with it his confidence. There were few guides to regularly assist him and travelling to running events was pretty much impossible. David did not want to stop running as he recognised the enormous benefits. He fully appreciated it was contributing significantly to his well being. At 71, David still regularly runs with a team of guides that help him and they in turn draw inspiration from his efforts
The Blindfold Challenge – 10 different parkruns over 10 weeks
I am currently experiencing a challenge which is playing havoc with my senses and fuelling my anxieties – what it is like to be completely blind? To run at a half decent pace, in locations I have never been acquainted with and to truly feel, deep inside, what it is like not to be able to see anything at all.
Its only for a maximum of 35 minutes and then I have full vision once again. I feel quite privileged to just get into my car and drive home. The stress and anxiety I felt during that time is bewildering and bloody scary. 30 minutes or so after parkrun ends and the endorphins kick-in, the adrenaline begins to flow and suddenly my Saturday is made.
I am not a councillor or a health practitioner, I very often say the wrong things, but I do believe that for 30+ minutes on a Saturday, I most definitely say the right things and for that small amount of time I can make a blind person believe they are very much part of society and can begin to understand the importance of self-esteem.