Mental Health and Visual Impairment: Peer Perspectives

Mental Health Awareness Month

Editor’s Note: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five adults in the U.S., 43.8 million or 18.5 percent, experience mental illness every year. Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month, specifically highlighting and educating the public about mental illnesses. The campaign also seeks to diminish negative stereotypes associated with these diseases drawing attention to the realities of living with these conditions and providing effective strategies for maintaining mental health and wellness. Further, June is designated as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) month. logo saying I'm into mental health inspired informed involved national alliance of mental health

Visual Impairment and Mental Health

Co-occurring mental disorders are not uncommon for those of us living with a visual impairment. The sudden loss of eyesight associated with acquired blindness has statistically been known to accompany other issues such as anxiety, depression, phobias, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal thoughts. While symptoms for these disorders vary based on the individual, these illnesses can have cognitive, behavioral, and whole body (physical) symptomology.

Open Dialogue

We, as a visually impaired community, must acknowledge the importance of mental health awareness. By harnessing the courage necessary to respectfully discuss our own experiences, we can potentially help others coping with vision loss seek the professional help they need to live fulfilling lives. If you or someone you love is in need of support for a mental illness, there are ways to get help. Contact your primary physician, call your local hospital, or inquire with your insurance company to seek a referral. If you are in crisis and need immediate support or intervention, call 1-800-273-8255 or go the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline National Network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.

Perspective by Peer Advisor Holly Bonner

Since childhood, I have suffered from panic attacks. The sensation of my heart pounding out of my chest, labored breathing, and the fear of impending doom occurred almost on a daily basis. After battling breast cancer throughout most of my 20s, I was diagnosed with both depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When my cancer resulted in the loss of my eyesight in 2012, my depression and anxiety reached levels I was not equipped to deal with. A failed suicide attempt prompted me to seek professional counseling to help process the feelings of loss associated with my blindness. I was grieving, and I needed to acquire the necessary tools to help me cope with the immense loss I had suffered. My tumultuous relationship with mental illnesses was part of the reason I chose to become a psychotherapist and attain my Masters in Social Work (MSW). I still experience instances throughout the year, more specifically near the anniversary of my vision loss, where my anxiety heightens, and I can become more withdrawn and isolated. When those feelings do occur, I reach out for both familial and professional support. I have learned to become patient with myself, allowing those feelings to wash over me like a wave breaking on the shore. I know these moments will eventually pass, allowing the waters to recede and restoring a sense of calmness and clarity to my life.

Perspective by Peer Advisor Dave Steele

In my late teens and early 20s, I found myself homeless. I became depressed and attempted suicide a couple of times as I felt I had no one. My amazing wife, Amy, suffers from depression and PTSD brought on by the traumatic birth of our youngest son, Austin. Due to complications, she lost so much blood that at one stage we thought we were going to lose her. In recent years, since my diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, I have slipped in and out of depression whilst experiencing regular panic attacks as my ever failing vision let me down. The bad days are no where near as frequent now, but in those first few months, I became consumed with anxiety. I became isolated because I couldn’t go out on my own or handle busy places, and as I was completely night blind, evenings out were off the agenda. It’s not as if I didn’t try to get help, but the system was far from an easy process, and it took me and my family nine months to get the assistance we so desperately needed. Meanwhile, the more pressure we felt financially, the more our depressions took a hold. Things are so much better in our lives now. My wife still suffers, but we are strong as a unit, and I’m in a much better place to be able to be there for her. My mental health issues have made me the person I am today. My scars both inside and out stand as a reminder of all that I have been through and survived. I dedicate my life to helping everyone who struggles at times with vision loss.

Creative Ways to Cope

Holly Bonner

When I created my website, Blind Motherhood, it provided an outlet for me to speak about my journey through vision loss. I was able to combine my professional background as a psychotherapist with the experiences I was having as a mother of two small children. Connecting with others through my writing, while integrating continued professional support, has been an inventive, meaningful form of self-therapy to help me cope with my own mental illness.

Dave Steele

The poetry in my books has helped people all over the world in the darkest of times. They realize through reading my words that they are not alone, while their friends and family can use my poems to gain a unique insight in to an ever fading world that some find difficult to explain. A truthful and hopeful poem from my book follows: Being blind can be so scary, living days with eyes wide shut. So we must change minds, seek out to find, the ones who’ve given up. There are those of us who live in fear as to what the future holds, who spend their days lock themselves away and it’s time their stories told. Depression can be a symptom as we grieve for vision gone, need love of friends and family but some of us have none. It’s those we must stand up for to the world we’ll shout out loud, let’s fight for each others confidence we are blind and we are proud. So if your eyes are fading don’t let your spirit slip, just remember you’re amazing let my words repair the rip. By Dave Steele from his book, “Stand By Me” (c).

Resource Articles

Mental Health by the Numbers- NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness Sue Martin: Say It Out Loud, “Suicide” Coping with Vision Loss Mental Health Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health