May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Learn About Managing Depression Due to Vision Loss
by Susan Kennedy
A Tough Year
The summer of 2011 slipped away, but I wanted it gone. Cancer destroyed the life of a loved one. At the same time, I underwent three eye surgeries, gaining significant vision loss and lived with uncertainty about my remaining sight. In July, my job let me go when my FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) time ran out and I was unable to return to work. Then the insurance company denied my long term disability claim. I spent hours on the phone, sometimes with help from my mom as I couldn't read the print on the important documents the companies mailed. I scribbled call logs in large letters with a black felt tip marker. Every call increased my heart rate and turned my stomach. For the first time in fifteen years, my income flat-lined. My husband worked and covered our bills, but our savings disappeared. Stress paired with grief while I tried to heal my eyes for my next procedure looming in the fall. As I told one of my friends in an e-mail, "I feel my patience is shot and mood swings and stress are just too much compared to normal for me. I'd rather talk to my doctor about it than wait for more bad news to roll in and then I'd really be in a bad place, you know?"
The lack of control in my life scared me. How was I going to get back to work? How was I going to get back to feeling like myself? Vision loss changed my lifestyle. Cultural stigmas about blindness and my own ignorance fueled my fear. Vision loss felt isolating; I needed help. My friends and family heard my concerns and supported my decision to discuss depression with my doctor. I scheduled an appointment about my stress and anxiety.
Coping with Depression After Vision Loss
After listening carefully, my doctor prescribed anti-depressants. Additionally, she encouraged me to seek out activities I enjoyed. I filled the prescription and followed the regimen. I thought about activities I liked to do. Growing up, I ran and swam and biked all the time. I decided to do some yoga and walk my terrier in the mornings and afternoons around our quiet neighborhood. Hearing the birdsongs and my dog's collar tags jingle and feeling the breeze through my hair lifted my mood at least temporarily. As a neighbor shouted one day from her porch as we passed, "He's the most walked dog in the neighborhood."
Every day I listened to my favorite programs on NPR. I listened to audiobooks from my library. I talked to my friends and family on the phone. With my husband's help, I altered settings on my computer and journaled my thoughts. I e-mailed recipes in large font sizes to myself and cooked dinners a few times a week in my familiar kitchen. Things took longer, but I had the time to spend.
By reconnecting with activities I liked, slowly I gained confidence before an upcoming appointment with a low vision specialist. Once I met with her it would propel me on a course of adjusting to vision loss. Eventually, I would receive services from my state agency for vision rehabilitation services, orientation and mobility therapy, and job counseling. I would start blogging about my experience and talk with others dealing with vision loss, too. One activity at a time, one decision at a time led me back to wellness.
Stats on Depression and Vision Loss
Let's look at the numbers to discover if depression is common with vision loss.
- How many Americans have depression? According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2014, "an estimated 15.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 6.7% of all U.S. adults."
- How many Americans have vision loss? The American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) Facts and Figures on Adults with Vision Loss indicates 22.5 million American Adults age 18 and older reported experiencing vision loss (based on the 2014 National Health Interview Survey).
- Are people with vision loss at risk for depression? A 2013 national study of adults aged 20 and older published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology (JAMA) concluded that, "self-reported visual function loss...is significantly associated with depression." Also, AFB's Aging and Vision Loss Fact Sheet notes an increased risk of depression among older people with vision impairment.
Can you identify the signs of depression? Here are the signs and symptoms of depression according to the Naitonal Institute of Mental Health:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms
If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these things, talk to a healthcare provider. In addition, if you are thinking about hurting yourself or dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.
You Are Not Alone
Studies show depression after vision loss is common. Relief from depression after vision loss won't be found in isolation. Relief can emerge when we reach out and connect with others to do fulfilling and meaningful activities. It can feel lonely and overwhelming to deal with vision changes, but remember, you're not the only one who has felt this way.
More Information on Dealing with Depression and Vision Loss
- Personal Reflections
Re: May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Learn About Managing Depression Due to Vision LossPosted by MaureenD on 5/10/2016 at 3:20 PM
This is Maureen, who writes and edits the other VisionAware blog. I have followed your personal blog for a long time; in fact, you were one of the earliest additions to my VisionAware Blog blogroll. It's nice to meet you and I'm happy you have joined us as a peer advisor.
You've written a powerful and informative blog post and I thank you very much for sharing this with our readers. I am seeing increasing research regarding depression and vision loss, and you have given a very human face to the issue, which, sometimes, is better than all the research in the world. Welcome!
Re: May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Learn About Managing Depression Due to Vision LossPosted by SKennedy on 5/11/2016 at 9:17 AM
Thanks for the warm welcome and your support. Your posts are always educational and interesting--I think it's how I originally noticed VisionAware. You are a great advocate.
As a peer advisor, I share my experiences in hopes that it will help and resonate with others dealing with vision loss. We are in this together.
Re: May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Learn About Managing Depression Due to Vision LossPosted by Quietwater on 5/11/2016 at 5:08 PM
Susan, Thanks for sharing. I believe we all have times when life overwhelms us with too many negative things piling up with insufficient time to adjust and cope. Then there are the times when our feelings of inadequacy seem to come out of nowhere. Whenther it is chemistry or hormonal, it all can seem to much. When I feel myself slipping in to a place like that, I try to focus on one step at a time. I try to handle the most pressing problems and break them down in to manageable small bits. That sometimes works and even if I still feel inadequate to coping, at least I get some items off the pile! Warm Regards,
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