For millions of blind and visually impaired people the pandemic raises new issues around safety, transportation, and access to mental health support.
Luckily, for New Jersey residents living with varying degrees of vision loss, help is but a phone call away.
Rutgers University’s Eye2Eye Program, the nation’s first phone-based peer-to-peer operation dedicated to empowering people with low to no vision, provides specialized emotional support to the hundreds of thousands visually impaired in the tri-state area.
Eye2Eye’s Tracey Simon said the top priority for her and Eye2Eye’s entire staff of visually impaired peer support partners is to “make sure our callers are in a mentally and emotionally well state-of-being.” She said, “Most callers just want to connect with someone who understands how they feel. It’s the emotional connection that’s most important. If you weren’t born visually impaired or blind, dealing with vision loss can be scary. The world, as you know it, is different.”
A dedicated peer support partner since Eye2Eye’s official launch in October 2019, Simon, a single mom of three who was diagnosed with Stargardt disease — a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss — eight years ago, exemplifies the program’s unwavering commitment to improving the lives of the visually challenged, especially now during uncertain times.
“When you’re in a crisis like we’re in now you don’t always think clearly, and sometimes panic and fear will set in. That’s where the Eye2Eye Program steps in,” the Piscataway resident said. “We are able to speak emphatically to our clients in a rational way and offer suggestions and exercises to get them back to a positive state of being.”
Founder of the Eye2Eye program, Dr. Steven Silverstein, realized a need for the service after reviewing data showing that people who lose their vision, whether gradually or suddenly, suffer a high rate of depression and anxiety but have limited access to specialized outlets or treatment.
“The overwhelming reason why blind and visually impaired people aren’t receiving mental health services is because there’s no screening for it in vision clinics,” the former Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care research director explains. “And then when patients ask for (mental and emotional health support) there are not enough professionals with expertise to really provide informed care for this population.”
With anxieties skyrocketing and the rules of social distancing being enforced in the wake of the global health crisis, there is a heightened concern for the mental and emotional well-being of individuals with low vision.
“A concern for people who are blind is the social isolation. And now with the pandemic, more and more people are becoming isolated. With social distancing, I worry about people who can’t see, who might already be feeling that isolation, now having less options,” said Silverstein, who currently serves as the Director of the Center for Retina and Brain at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“The program provides them a way to keep a connection. We want to help people whose thinking might have become distorted or catastrophic to see that there are healthier ways to perceive the situation,” he adds.
Eye2Eye, a free and easily accessible resource backed by the Lavelle Fund for the Blind, is the only service of its kind that offers mental and emotional health phone support to blind and visually impaired adults provided by intensively trained legally blind staffers.
“The staff is trained to do assessments to determine the callers well-being. The calls are centered around goal-setting and problem solving,” said Silverstein, who temporarily suffered partial vision loss 20 years ago. “The peer support aspect of it is important because people respond better when they’re talking to someone who’s gone through something similar to them.”
“There’s nothing like one-on-one support,” Simon confirms. “And there’s nothing like having a conversation with someone who can understand exactly what you’re going through because they are living the same situation. I can understand what these people are going through because I too have a visual impairment as opposed to someone who has no idea what living with visual impairment is about.”
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Eye2Eye is boosting its efforts to serve as an outlet for the blind, maintaining an uninterrupted connection with clients by equipping its peer support partners to work remotely from the safety of their individual homes.
Dr. Ken Gill, chairman of the Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitations and Counseling Professions at Rutgers’ School of Health Professions, immediately jumped into action to ensure Eye2Eye remained accessible to its users amid the coronavirus shelter-in-place order.
“The first thing we had to do was ensure that our clients are able to stay connected to (the peer support staff) while they’re working from home,” he says. “Some people that are blind might actually exhibit more strength while dealing with (the pandemic). They face challenges everyday and are very good at adapting. But the concern is, now the very things that are in place to help them are not readily available at the moment. We want make sure Eye2Eye is available.”
Though the service is designed to improve the lives of its callers, daily, it doubles as a life-enhancing support system for its visually impaired staff too.
”I absolutely love what I’m doing,” Simon said. “I wake up, everyday, grateful for this program because I’ve been able to connect with so many people and share my heart with them. And just to laugh with them and to hear their laughter, it lets me know I’m doing the right thing.”
While Eye2Eye is specific to Rutgers University and residents of the tri-state area, a goal of the program’s overseers is to eventually expand the peer support service to institutions nationwide.
To reach the Eye2Eye Peer Support Helpline, call 833-932-3931