Visually impaired children face increased risk of developing mental health problems says new research revealed at international conference

New research shows that eight to eleven year old children with a visual impairment and no additional intellectual disability are three times more likely to develop a mental health problem than their sighted peers. About a third are at high risk of anxiety or mood disorders and about half show difficulties in quality of life or adaptive behaviour. This new research was presented at a major conference in London this month by clinical academics at Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (GOSH) and the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH).

These concerning rates have not been identified before and troublingly, most of these children and their families, are not receiving any mental health support. This milestone conference, ‘Child Visual impairment and mental health – science into practice’ (2nd to 4th July 2018), brought together internationally renowned speakers and practitioners from health, education, social care and voluntary sectors and universities from across the UK and overseas. The focus was on innovative research and evidence-based practice to establish best practice to support children from birth to young adulthood.

Dr Naomi Dale, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Organising Chair of the conference, led the research at GOSH and ICH. Dr Dale said, “The work of our own clinical and research team shows that visual impairment puts high challenges on learning and development and mental health from the earliest days after birth and throughout childhood. The risks are even higher in those children with very low or no vision. This important conference brings together the leading international research evidence and clinical and educational research. This will help to identify the needs of children with visual impairment more effectively and how best to meet them and prevent problems developing. This will ensure that the children can overcome the challenges that they and their families might face and are able to reach their full potential, a key part of GOSH’s mission to put the child first and always.”

This was the first time that GOSH and ICH came together with two leading UK educational and service-providing charities for children with visual impairment, the Mary Kitzinger Trust (MKT) and the Royal Society for Blind Children (RSBC). As a leading provider of education and services for children, young people and their families in England and Wales, RSBC’s work is underpinned by the understanding that the challenges of living with little or no sight go far beyond the physical disability and the charity is a strong advocate and provider of early post diagnosis support for affected children, young people and their families.

Dr Tom Pey, Chief Executive at RSBC and one of the speakers at the event added, “As we know through RSBC’s frontline work with children and families, post diagnosis support can make the world of difference to a blind or visually impaired child’s future resilience and fulfilment.”

“The conference is an important milestone for all involved in the care of visually impaired children and young people. It’s absolutely crucial that this theme of mental health and the evidence based research that we’ve been shown by world class academics at this event, will inform healthcare provision on a national scale and raise the profile of the profound challenges these children face if their emotional wellbeing is not prioritised.”

Mr Robert Kitzinger, Trustee of the Mary Kitzinger Trust, said, “The conference brought together distinguished researchers and practitioners who with the international delegates were inspired by an address from the teen-age medal-winning Paralympian skier, Millie Knight who is severely visually impaired.”

Currently there is no specialized mental health provision in the UK for blind and visually impaired children and their families. They have had far less consideration than children with other lifelong disabilities such as autism or hearing loss. For example, there is a specialist national Child and Adolescent Mental Health service available to deaf children across the country, which has been established to meet their mental health needs. This conference and the network established through it will now start driving forward the development of better mental health support for this very vulnerable group of children.

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