Blind and vision impaired children as young as 11 face a heightened risk of developing mental health problems, according to new research led by the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB).  

Worryingly, given the pressure on support services for disabled children, this means that some of them will be in a ‘twilight zone’ unsupported by local authorities as their problems do not trigger a referral to local services, meaning they are at risk of being overlooked. 

RLSB, which supports blind and vision impaired children and their families, is calling for wider recognition of the psychological consequences of sight loss among professionals and carers and is taking action to develop an early intervention service to reach those at risk.

The charity is endeavouring to raise funds to recruit family support workers (FSW) and is keen to work with local authority wellbeing professionals and clinical commissioning groups to ensure that vision impaired children and their families receive the support they require.

The research, published online in the Journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, is based on data collated by parents and teachers. It shows that children with vision impairment are up to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems than sighted children. 

Using an internationally recognised measure of emotional and behavioural problems, researchers analysed data from more than 13,000 11-year-old children. When they compared the scores of vision impaired and sighted children they found a much higher proportion of the vision impaired children produced scores indicative of a mental health problem.

Dr John Harris, head of research at RLSB and author of the study, said: “Our study suggests that over 20% of vision impaired children have significant mental health problems. This compares with just 7% of those with normal vision. The figure rises to 30% in those vision impaired children with additional disabilities or special educational needs.

“Our research highlights the importance of rapid post diagnosis support for these vulnerable children and their parents. Without early and continued support for the family, emotional and behavioural problems that occur in childhood are likely to persist and affect every aspect of the child’s life as they grow older.” 

Together with partner charity, the Royal Blind Society, RLSB is working to grow a network of FSWs across England and Wales, with the aim of having a service operating in every county by 2020. The role of the FSW is to help each family understand how vision impairment affects their son or daughter and provide support, advice and information that will reduce the risk of emotional and behavioural difficulties.   

Dr Tom Pey, chief executive of RLSB, said: “The picture that emerges from this research is that children with vision-impairment are simply not getting the help they need. They are on course for a life at the margins: isolated, lonely and unsupported.

“We’re clear that early family support is the solution, but we can’t work in isolation. We need other professionals to look beyond the child’s eye condition and recognise the need for emotional as well as practical support at every stage of a child’s development to ensure the best possible outcomes.”