In a session at last year’s National Convention, panelists discussed the intersection between blindness and emotional well-being. Bonnie Sturrock, from the Centre for Eye Research, revealed that 43 per cent of vision impaired people suffer from depressive symptoms, compared to only 16 per cent of the general adult population.
That session has inspired a clearly necessary conversation about the causes of this discrepancy. Louise Pearson’s account of her personal experience chimes with some of the comments from attendees, and offers practical advice and an optimistic approach to overcoming the obstacles we face when we’re struggling with our mental health.
As I sit, hands poised above my braille keyboard, I find myself wondering how it is that I, of all people, suddenly feel the urge to write about blindness and mental health, and where the two might meet.
I say “I, of all people”, because I’ve always been the one to think blindness? And then shrug my shoulders. It doesn’t affect my mental health! It doesn’t stop me. I work, I study, I travel, I go to too many live concerts and theatre events according to my credit cards, I read books and entertain friends, and I’ve recently opened my own small counselling business. So, surely in my mind at least, I should consider myself lucky?
It has taken me almost 50 years, and maybe I am a slow learner, but I feel like now I can admit that blindness does indeed affect my mental health. It’s an added layer, an extra stressor, that people with vision disabilities have to factor into everything we do.
If I’m going to meet that friend tomorrow night for dinner, I need to know how to find her! If I’m going to attend that lecture at the top of a building, I’ll need to find that too, and it’s not as simple as following a sign and dropping into a seat as the lecture begins! If I want to go out and buy a new dress just because I can (and believe me, there’s nothing I like more than retail therapy), then I have to arrange to do it with someone!
Those are everyday challenges, but what if it is our mental health that is challenged? We might need help with a marriage problem, have an obstreperous teenager, or feelings of depression or isolation. But to get that help, there’s a whole other chapter for us, to the story that everyone else needs to read.
If we decide we want to read a self-help book that a friend has recommended, then we need to have the resources to find the one we want, and they’re not always available through traditional sources like the Vision Australia Library. If we try to distract ourselves by finding a new hobby, then we might need to educate people about our inclusion, before we ever sit down behind that pottery wheel.
And heaven forbid, if it’s a counsellor we are after, we have to first be able to pay for it (and that’s not necessarily cheap, despite the Federal Government’s Better Access to Mental Health scheme), when we might only be receiving a Blind Pension.
If we find such a counsellor, we have to be able to get ourselves there – and that’s either by asking someone to take us, by negotiating a new route on public transport, or by being able to pay for a taxi there and back. And finally, when we drop, often more than slightly stressed, into the chair in that counselling room, we don’t always leave feeling understood.
I know, I know! I’m not giving you anything startling here! From time to time, the social researcher in me has obliged me to fill out surveys written by aspiring students, asking questions like “are you happy as blind people”? or “are you as happy as other people of your age and experience”? I haven’t usually bothered to read their results, so I’m not here to quote statistics at you.
I’m here to say that as a blind person, who is a mental health social worker, and who works also in the NDIS space, these challenges can be successfully negotiated.
What I need to admit to myself along the way, however, is that they do need some acknowledgement! Whether it’s by discussing the issues that are stopping you with a friend who understands, by sharing your struggle on an email list, or by showing yourself some compassion in your own self-talk, I find that having that struggle acknowledged is powerful.
Like most counsellors, I believe that being truly heard can be a restorative experience, and that once I’ve had that experience, I can start to overcome those barriers! And the ways around them? Well they are as varied as are the challenges.
The range of apps that I have on my iPhone now is incredible! They can read, detect colour, get sighted eyes on a problem or help me find a particular point of interest. In terms of mental health, well you don’t pay to get to counsellors who operate online or over the telephone, so there’s one problem you might be able to step around.
A lot of books are available on Kindle nowadays, so I too can read the latest. The NDIS system is not perfect, nor will it pay for every expense related to your disability, but used creatively, it really can make a difference and can be another tool in the box!
I call it my ABC method:
- Acknowledging that I have difficulties
- Believing that they are real
- Knowing that with creativity, I can usually find a way around them.
If you have been affected by issues raised in this piece, you can call Lifeline, 24/7, on 13 11 14.
I am no longer fighting myself about the existence of those barriers! I know they are there, I talk about them, but I’m not about to let them beat me.