People with vision-threatening diabetic retinopathy are likely to experience enhanced social and emotional strain. Critically, those with both vision-threatening diabetic retinopathy and psychosocial problems may have significantly reduced levels of functioning compared with psychologically healthy counterparts. This can cause inadequate compliance, increased strain on family functioning, worse diabetes control, increased progression of diabetic retinopathy and, consequently, further psychosocial stress resulting in a number of concerning implications for disease management, clinical outcomes and healthcare costs. However, the emotional and social health consequences of diabetic retinopathy have not yet been systematically explored. This information is crucial as it allows for a targeted approach to treatment and prevention and avoidance of the potentially detrimental implications described above. Therefore, this paper reviews the current qualitative and quantitative evidence regarding the social and emotional impact of diabetic retinopathy and identifies directions for future research. Key search terms were applied to the electronic databases Pubmed, ISI Web of Science and Embase and the bibliographies of relevant papers were systematically reviewed for additional references. Overall, the evidence suggests that diabetic retinopathy and associated vision loss have several debilitating effects, including disruption of family functioning, relationships and roles; increased social isolation and dependence; and deterioration of work prospects resulting in increased financial strain. Adverse emotional responses include fear, anxiety, vulnerability, guilt, loss of confidence, anger, stress and self-perception issues. However, the research to date is largely qualitative in nature, with most quantitative studies being small, cross-sectional and somewhat outdated. Similarly, the outcome measures used in many studies to date are suboptimal in terms of content and validity. Therefore, this review identifies the need for improved outcome measures to provide valid, meaningful measurement of the social and emotional impact of diabetic retinopathy and discusses potential directions for future research such as item banking and computer adaptive testing.