November 29, 2010


By: Merideth Smith, M.S., Psychology Intern and Laura J. Peters, Ph.D., Staff Psychologist
Photo: Silhouette of a person sitting in a chair with their head in their hands

With vision loss, it is normal to experience periods of sadness, stress, or grief; however, these feelings will often lessen over time. For some individuals, these feelings do not go away, and when this happens it is called depression. Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, fatigue, problems sleeping or oversleeping, isolation, irritability, or restlessness that last for most days for two weeks or longer. Unfortunately, people with vision loss are at higher risk of developing depression. Of the 5.7 million older adults in the United States with vision loss, 57.2% are at increased risk for mild to moderate depressive symptoms and 6.2% are at risk for severe depression. Those with mild to moderate depression are 4 to 6 times more likely to experience worse health as well as problems with functioning (e.g., walking, shopping, and socializing). Those with severe depression are 18 to 23 times more likely to have worse health and problems with functioning. This increased risk for depression and poorer functioning in older adults with vision impairment is a significant public health concern and can have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life and physical health.

Although adults with vision impairment are at an increased risk for depression, there are steps that can help someone cope with the symptoms of depression. Engaging in vision loss rehabilitation can help individuals feel more capable and in control of their lives. Seeking out social support through family, friends, organizations, or support groups can be very effective in improving quality of life and can help with the adjustment to changes in health. Rehabilitation can also support people's ability to resume pleasurable activities that they have abandoned due to their sight loss. Engaging in pleasurable activities can improve a person’s mood. Exercising on a regular basis can also help with problems with sleeping or feelings of fatigue.

However, sometimes the depression is severe and significantly interferes with a person’s life. People with depression can even have thoughts of hurting or killing themselves. This is referred to as suicidal ideation. In fact, white males over the age of 85 have the highest rates of death by suicide, 45 deaths out of 100,000. Unfortunately, this population is also the least likely to seek help if they experience depression. A national hot line is available for individuals who have suicidal thoughts, or for family and friends who are concerned about a loved one. This hot line can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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When depression becomes this crippling, professional help may be needed. Currently there are effective forms of treatment for individuals who are experiencing depression and these treatments continue to improve with ongoing research. Treatment can take the form of psychotherapy, which can include talking about stressors, learning to use healthy coping strategies, improving relationships, or learning to incorporate pleasurable activities back into everyday life. Antidepressant medications can also be used to effectively treat depression. These medications do take time to work and the first medication you try may not be effective. There are several different types of antidepressant medications, so do not give up if the first medication is ineffective. It is important to communicate with your doctor if you experience side-effects or do not notice a change in mood after 3 to 4 weeks.

Depression can be physically and mentally debilitating and adults with vision impairment are at an increased risk. However, there are effective resources and treatments that can improve mood and give the person the skills necessary to successfully adapt to these significant life changes. If you notice you or someone you love have prolonged periods of sadness, loss of pleasure, or depression, do not hesitate to talk with your doctor.

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