Mental Health

The blind veteran who flourishes in the face of adversity

A blind Royal Navy veteran who has not only learned to make the most of life without her sight but has also recovered from a near-fatal car crash five years ago has spoken of how she manages to stay positive even when at times it has felt as though her life was collapsing around her.

Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown, who describes the extent of her blindness as not being able to tell the difference between night and day, says her experience of recovering from a car crash that almost claimed her life has given her a perspective on coping with the kind of mental health challenges that would perhaps test the most resilient of minds.

However, Penny does maintain a positive outlook on life and is keen to advise others on how to cope. One of her most powerful pieces of advice is to take charge of how you see your future, saying: "Recognise that you are not always going to do everything you could do in the past, but you can do new things in the future." 

This determination to thrive and flourish in the face of adversity has driven Penny to support others with disabilities who are trying to live an independent life, despite society's prejudice and ignorance toward them.

Penny celebrating becoming the first female barrister in the Royal Navy in 1989 (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).
Penny celebrating becoming the first female barrister in the Royal Navy in 1989 (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

Speaking with Natasha Reneaux, a broadcaster at BFBS the Forces Station, at the start of mental health awareness week, Penny explains why, after being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1999 due to her sight loss, she founded Disability Dynamics, a company that specialised in training, consultancy and supporting disabled people to become self-employed, saying: "I wanted to support other people to get that new equilibrium in their lives of independence, financially, socially and be able to re-establish themselves as individuals in their own right. 

"And when they succeeded, my goodness, the difference it made to their lives and their mental health and their physical health." 

The power of positive thinking and focusing on the future

Penny joined the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) - which was disbanded and integrated into the Royal Navy in 1993 - as a graduate Direct Entry in 1977 and by 1989 she had made history by becoming the first WRNS Officer to hold the position of naval barrister. 

However, it was during her first legal job that she started to notice the sight in her right eye was deteriorating. The steroid treatment she was taking was so damaging to her liver and kidneys that she had to stop for fear of dying. 

With the use of a white cane and screen magnifier, Penny continued her naval career and was promoted to Commander, but inside felt utterly desperate for about five years. 

She was unable to see a positive future for herself. All she could think about was what she could no longer do. She said: "I could see that I was going to lose my income so I couldn't pay my mortgage so I would lose my home. 

"All my achievements were going to collapse. 

"I was in quite a bad way and this was only right at the very start of losing my right eyesight. 

"I went to the naval psychiatrist, had a few sessions with them and they sort of said, 'oh you'll be okay'." 

Penny Melville-Brown in a coma after her accident in France CREDIT Penny Melville-Brown
Penny in a coma after her 2017 accident in France (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

The time she spent with her therapist and being able to stay working for the Royal Navy made a huge difference for Penny. 

She was able to prove to herself that though she had lost her eyesight, she had not lost her brain, her capabilities and her intelligence. Keeping her job as a Commander and by her own admission, doing it well, gave her the confidence to know that she could do anything she put her mind to in the future. 

The veteran's positive outlook combined with the support she received from the Royal Navy – she had an "outstanding" Warrant Officer who assisted her – helped her adjust to a new way of life. 

Watch: Penny Melville-Brown speaks to Natasha Renaux about her epic trip around the world cooking with blind and sighted chefs.

More than 20 years after her initial diagnosis of sight loss and five years after her near-death car accident in France, Penny has used her own personal experience to help hundreds of disabled people find fulfilling careers and teach employers how to support their differently-abled staff. 

She has also written a book about an epic trip she took around the world in 2017/2018, called 'A Cook's Tour: Baking Blind Goes Global', which is based on her experiences travelling across six continents and cooking with blind and sighted chefs to help change perceptions of blindness around the world. 

Her knowledge and experience mean she has some useful advice for anyone whose life has been turned upside down and has been left feeling desperate and unsure of what the future looks like. 

  1. Take charge. 
  2. Recognise that you are not always going to do everything you could do in the past, but you can do new things in the future. 
  3. Give yourself time and space, don't get overtired. Fatigue and exhaustion are so damaging. 
  4. Being confident and taking charge of your own life and not being passive is probably the biggest thing you can do. 

Cover photo: Tanya Holland (left) of the Brown Sugar Kitchen Oakland, California, taught Royal Navy veteran Penny Melville-Brown (right) the basics of her famous Creole cuisine (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

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