by Lisa Irving
From the Editor: As we work to understand issues our members experience in addition to blindness, we also wrestle with the way in which blindness contributes and what we might do to make it less a barrier to equitable and quality treatment. I think we are nowhere near knowing what to do but are genuinely exploring what we may try to improve the situations blind people face while in psychiatric hospitals. Here is another article offering some insight on the treatment received while trying to navigate these facilities as a blind person:
I was moved and reminded of my re-traumatization when I was hospitalized for PTSD some years ago, and some experiences when I participated in an IOP, or Intensive Outpatient Program. I believe that NFB needs to recognize our overall misunderstanding of mental illness and persons living with mental illness. I also believe that our organization has the resources and strength to bring about positive change in this area.
Some statistics suggest that one in four persons live with a mental health disorder such as anxiety, the most common mental health disorder. I could elaborate and quantify the number of people living with depression, bipolar disorder, or other diagnosis. Let’s agree that many of us live with a mental health diagnosis. Some of us hide this fact because of stigmatization. I think Jolean O’Connell was courageous to candidly share some of her experiences (“Psychiatric Hospital Access Barriers: A Call for Change,” Braille Monitor, February 2022). Her story has encouraged me to contribute my own traumatizing experiences when I was hospitalized for severe PTSD and depression.
A year after I was subjected to domestic violence and intimate partner rape, I was hospitalized for PTSD triggered by what’s called an anniversary reaction. My cane was taken away, and I was given a walker. My hat with a wide brim that sinched under my chin was taken away—I wore the hat because I was photophobic. Paperwork was inaccessible. When I was discharged a few days later, I initially had no way of getting home, being hospitalized fifty miles from my home. Under typical circumstances, each of these offenses would have been more manageable. However, I was in crisis and in full-blown PTSD. Obviously, I wasn’t at my best. Additionally, the psychiatric facility had its safety protocols, and it had no idea about reasonable accommodations. To this day, I will never allow myself to be hospitalized. That’s how traumatizing my experience was for me.
About six years ago, I experienced a mental health crisis that left me with thoughts of suicide and depressed. I was referred to an excellent IOP for five months of group and individual therapy. Again, I was not at a good place to logically advocate for myself. Initially, the workbooks were not accessible. That was eventually resolved. I contend that, as a patient in crisis at that time, it was beyond me to work with others to acquire materials in alternative format. Forethought on the part of the IOP staff and others was needed. While in the program, staff were not supposed to touch patients. That rule didn’t apply to staff who routinely objectified me. The unexpected touching and grabbing were highly triggering at that time in my life. When I objected, I was seen as “oppositional.” At another point, while in group, an instructor was writing on a board. When I asked him to read what he had written, I was accused of “attention seeking.” I walked out of class because I was not in an emotionally stable place to deal with the instructor. I was later told that I was engaging in “avoidant behaviors.” Duhh! [an expression meaning one thinks a statement is stupid]
I think the worst experience happened when I met with the psychologist for individual counseling. She assumed that I had hangups about my blindness. I walked out of her office and never returned for individual counseling. To this day, I can feel the physical reactions to these events.
No patient, blind or sighted, should be retraumatized while hospitalized or receiving any form of mental health treatment, individual or group therapy, or Intensive Outpatient Program services. Mental health clinicians and auxiliary staff need to plan for patients with disabilities. Policies and procedures need to be developed and in place prior to providing treatment to blind or disabled individuals needing mental health services. The NFB’s Human Services Division deserves the full support and resources from the President, the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors, and all affiliates to ensure proper education of mental health professionals and reasonable accommodations for blind persons living with mental health challenges (mental illness). We must do all we can to see that facilities are prepared to support our population.