Pulling your hair out: Life with trichotillomania

For many students, especially women, the stress of university can lead to compulsive hair-pulling. Support is available, as Salma Haidrani explains

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The Independent Online

University is an exciting period of fresh starts for incoming undergraduates, whether it’s learning to live independently, choosing to be open about your sexuality for the first time, or simply moving to a brand new town or country.

But for some freshers, it’s not merely a brand new toaster or IKEA laundry basket that’s coming with them to university. For some, their long-standing battle with compulsive hair pulling or TTM (trichotillomania), as it is more commonly referred to, is coming hundreds of miles from their hometown and into halls.

While the disorder is relatively unheard of, TTM is a lot more common that would initially appear. According to Anxiety UK, approximately one in 200 people at present in the UK suffer from the uncontrollable urge to pull out their body hair (the same number of people affected by bulimia) to relieve anxiety and stress, sometimes resulting in visible bald patches.

The condition is usually developed during adolescence and predominantly affects women of any ethnicity or class, sufferers, called ‘trichsters’, typically experience relief and pleasure once they’ve satisfied the impulse to pull, either from their scalp, eyelashes or even in some extreme cases, pubic region.

Long-term trichster and Queen Margaret University student Victoria Connolly was just one such student: "It started when I was underweight and I grew excess body hair due to anorexia. I became obsessed with removing hair and now it’s a daily battle."

Connolly's isn’t an isolated experience. Secondary school exacerbatedaAccounting graduate Aneela Kumar’s long-term battle with trichotillomania: "I believe the pulling started as a way to find some solace dealing with my father’s diagnosis with leukaemia and death."

It can start at university

For some, their experience of trichotillomania can commence at university. Although university can be an exciting transition, the inevitable anxieties and pressures of such a life-changing move can trigger TTM. Whether it’s struggling to work independently without the comforts of the school classroom, the pressures of adjusting to a new routine and unfamiliar environment or the challenges of coping without a support network for the first time, for some, choosing to pull out their hair can offer some solace and alleviate stress.

Just take University of Sheffield student Maddie*.

"While the prospect of moving away for university initially seemed exciting, I was struggling to cope," she says. "It was difficult to bond with my new flatmates and I was miles away from my family and home comforts." 

TTM served as a coping mechanism for her new-found challenges and responsibilities.

"When I felt stressed, I’d lock myself in my room and pull out my eyelashes. Eventually, there were hardly any lashes left on my upper eyelids."

For some, pressure starts from freshers' week. Overwhelmed with balancing student societies, volunteering and summer internships, alongside academic deadlines, a social life and possibly a significant other, it’s unsurprising that some students may pull out their hair to cope.

Kumar concurs: "I find that the cause is stress related. My worst sessions tend to happen when I have too much on late and I tend to take on too much as my personality is always to be busy."

Why is it so quiet?

Perhaps this largely stems from the shame which often accompanies mental illness. Despite the leaps that universities throughout the UK continue to make in raising awareness and encouraging a more open dialogue on mental health, ‘coming out’ carries the risk of being stigmatised, especially for female sufferers for whom hair is an otherwise powerful symbol of femininity. Long-standing TTM sufferer Laura John-Baptiste concurs: "There is a real shame to having no proper hair for a woman – their ‘crowning glory’ as the say."

Sufferers go to great lengths to conceal their appearance for fear of being detected. Even the simplest tasks such as getting ready every morning can be a daily challenge. Whether it’s painstakingly applying false lashes to conceal the bald patches between lashes or in some cases even wearing a wig, sufferers spend a far greater of time in front of the mirror.

But campus culture which can reduce women’s worth to their physical appearance must also be held accountable. For trichotillomaniacs with bald patches on their scalps, eyelashes or eyebrows, failing to match up to the standard of how they should appear can exacerbate overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

"When individuals experience deep rooted distress, whatever its basis, negative emotions can be exacerbated by certain stimulae," says University of Sheffield Psychology lecturer Dr Sharron Hinchliff. "These can include situations where individuals feel anxious or under pressure as a result of perceived societal and/or interpersonal expectations. There is a pressure on young women in western societies to adhere to the current ideal of female beauty, and university students are not immune to that."

International 'no pulling week'

Despite all this, progress is being made towards increasing acceptance and understanding of the disorder. This week is International No Pulling Week (#INPW), which aims to combat the invisibility of the disorder and raise greater awareness. Trichster, which premiers in the spring, is a film documentary which aims to normalise the disorder and which follows eight sufferers' daily struggles. And with high-profile figures like TOWIE's Sam Faiers and actress Olivia Munn ‘coming out’ and opening up publicly about their battles with the disorder, perhaps sufferers will no longer be ashamed and have to isolate themselves.

Such is the impact of celebrities speaking out that mental health charity Mind reports that one in five young women who’ve been affected have sought help directly as a result.

Paul Farmer, Mind's chief executive, says: "People with personal experience of mental health problems have told us that celebrities who speak out have inspired them to start conversations about mental health and get the support they need.’"

With some progress in erasing the stigma of trichotillomania, perhaps sufferers will no longer be reluctant to discuss their disorder and seek the available support. Non-profit charity organisations Trichotillomania Support and Anxiety UK provide a wide range of specialist services for those affected including an online buddy system, support groups and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

For the most part, university can be challenging without the added anxiety of living with (and hiding) trichotillomania. John-Baptiste remains optimistic that the disorder doesn’t have to be a life-sentence and that she can one day leave the house without having to check for bald patches on her head: "I’m hoping that (in the future) I can feel more free and not tied down by this condition."

For more information on trichotillomania, visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk/ or trichotillomania.co.uk/. Additionally, Twitter accounts @LetsBeatTrich, @HelpMe2Stop and @HealingTrich can provide great comfort and support for sufferers who would otherwise feel that they are isolated in their experience of suffering TTM.