You Are Not Alone

By Dr. Mark Sinyor

Myth: You’re the only one who pulls her hair.

Mental illness has been poorly understood until recently, and, as a result, it has been stigmatized for a very long time. We’re working hard to change that but, in the meantime, we have been living in a world where many people suffer, but almost everyone keeps it to themselves. What’s the result? People with mental illness feel alone, even though that’s just not true.

As a Mood & Anxiety Disorder specialist, one of the most powerful things I can tell my patients is how many other people are going through very similar circumstances. Let me give you a specific example that might sound obscure – compulsive hair pulling disorder or “trichotillomania”.

We’re not sure (because so many people keep it hidden) but it turns out that something like 2 to 3% of adolescents and young adults suffer from this disorder. That’s not a small number. There are certainly plenty of people who come to my office who have investigated their disorder and understand how common it is, but more often than not, the patients that I see have experienced shame, embarrassment and suffering for years, or even decades, believing that they are alone. This is a real pity since there are good treatments for trichotillomania, as with many other psychiatric disorders.

Why does trichotillomania happen? We don’t know exactly, but it turns out that when a certain gene is turned off in the brains of mice, they begin to groom themselves excessively, causing hair loss. Research is under way to see whether we can find a similar genetic mechanism in humans.

Regardless of the exact cause, the brain is where our thoughts, feelings and behaviours originate. It is the most fascinating organ in the body, but just like our heart, lungs and kidneys, sometimes it can malfunction. We need to be honest about that with our peers and, even more importantly, with our children, so that they can recognize mental illness when it happens and seek help, rather than suffering in silence. We need to send the message that you are not alone.

Dr. Mark Sinyor

Dr. Mark Sinyor is a staff psychiatrist in the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.  As part of his work, he runs cognitive behavioural therapy groups for people suffering from trichotillomania.

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