This Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13 to May 19), it’s time to consider how losing your eye sight can affect your mental health.
One in five of us will lose our sight and unfortunately, a huge number of blind and partially sighted people have admitted experiencing depression and mental health issues. There are currently 53,500 people living with sight loss in Northern Ireland, a figure estimated to rise to 70,000 in just 11 years.
Many people face sight loss alone and research has shown that feelings of wellbeing are lower amongst blind and partially sighted people. Thirty one per cent of blind and partially sighted people were rarely or never optimistic about the future and worryingly, the majority of blind and partially sighted people did not receive any emotional support in relation to their sight loss. Four in ten people felt cut off from the people and the things around them. Low incomes, inaccessible information, difficulties in getting around and digital exclusion, can all contribute to feelings of isolation.
Only 17 per cent of people experiencing sight loss were offered emotional support in relation to their deteriorating vision, but thanks to a free counselling service, blind and partially sighted people are thankfully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Need to Talk, along with the wider offering of RNIB’s services and support, is literally saving and transforming lives.
The service was launched in October 2017 by sight loss charities RNIB and Fighting Blindness. The five year project was made possible by €1.8million funding from the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, which is managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) and offers free counselling to blind and partially sighted people, and their friends and family, in Northern Ireland, its bordering counties and in Scotland.
Heather Owens, from Belfast, has been blind since birth and lives with her husband Alan, who is also blind.
Heather said: I have always very strong and positive, but I was dealing with so many things at one time and it all got too much. I was the primary carer for my mum, who had Alzheimer's, as well as going through health problems of my own.
“I've always been so independent and had never asked for help before but as I have got older, I needed some help in the home.”
Heather went onto endure countless assessments from her local Health and Social Care Trusts and each time, was refused help. Depression took hold and Heather admits to being in, ‘a very dark place.’
She said: “I felt humiliated, I felt worthless and mentally, I began to feel very low and weary. I was in a black pit of despair; I felt I had no way out. It got the point when I felt like harming myself and ending it. I felt like I was a burden. I was being made to feel like I was wrong for asking for help despite having lived independently all my life.”
Heather, who has worked as a volunteer facilitator for 11 years, fought her case alongside her local MLA Nichola Mallon, The Law Centre and was even supported with eight letters from her doctor, but to no avail.
She said: “I was at breaking point, I really thought I was going to have a breakdown. I heard about the Need to Talk counselling service and I had eight weeks of counselling with a wonderful lady.
“It was funny how it came about actually. I have great faith, but things had got so bad that I had prayed for a solution. The following day, Una Mulgrew from RNIB Connect mentioned the Need to Talk service to me.
“Need to Talk saved my life. There’s no doubt about it. If I hadn’t received counselling, I believe I would’ve taken those tablets. I want to ensure other blind and partially sighted people know about Need to Talk.”
There is a direct link between sight loss and depression with more than four in ten people who attend low vision clinics admitting to suffering from symptoms of clinical depression.
Heather agrees: “There is [a link] as no matter how capable or strong you are, there’s a big strain on you, day in day out, as an individual, or as a couple. Even though my husband Alan and I are fully independent, it can be a strain.
“My blind fold never comes off. You're coping but it never leaves you. As you get older, it gets harder, especially if you have other health issues to deal with, like me. Everyone needs help and has their own independent needs.”
Heather says as well as rebuilding her confidence and self-esteem, the Need to Talk counselling she received, also gave her the strength to undergo one more final assessment to try and get the social care she needed.
“It did, I went through it one last time last April in 2018 and I won my case. Now, I have three hours of invaluable social care help a week and my dream is to become a counsellor myself someday soon.
“My counsellor helped me to understand that it was OK to ask for help, that it was fine to cry and that it was so important to talk.”
Most importantly, however, Heather now has her pride and her confidence back and is enjoying life again.”
To sign up for a Need to Talk Living with Sight Loss course, contact the RNIB Helpline, on: 0303 123 9999; or visit: rnib.org.uk/NeedToTalk
For further information, contact RNIB’s Laura Cummings on 028 9033 4132, or email [email protected]. For urgent out-of-hours enquiries, please call: 07763 579 141.