Despite the overwhelming prevalence of hair loss in the U.S., many people fail to understand the emotional role it plays. Around 60% of hair loss sufferers report they would rather have hair than money or friends — if that doesn’t signify emotional trauma, we’re not sure what does.
It is easier to grasp in regards to women, on which society places heavy expectations regarding appearance. Maria L. Colavincenzo, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology and residency program director at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine addresses the social aspect of hair loss in women:
“It’s not socially accepted for women to have thinning hair or hair loss. Women can feel like there’s something wrong with them. Just a little bit of hair loss can be devastating. It’s part of our sociocultural construct. Wealth is placed on physical features and hair is right up there, more than people expect.”
A recent article on the Chicago Health site put that importance in the spotlight by focusing on three sisters who are producing a movie about the emotional toll hair loss has on women called Head to Head. One of the sisters, Andrea Alberti, has had alopecia areata since she was a child, and lost all of her hair as a preteen.
“It was a no brainer to start this project. It’s been like therapy for me. It’s allowed me to accept where I am at in my life. I don’t have to feel bad.”
Women aren’t alone in this emotional devastation. Although male pattern baldness is exceptionally common, many men will go to dangerous (and costly) lengths to hold onto their hair just a little bit longer. In an article he wrote himself, one man (known as Julian) recounts his battle with hair loss and reveals an emotional attachment that more therapists should consider focusing on. He spends thousands of dollars on pills that could lead to permanent erectile dysfunction, and may even give him prostate cancer, but he can’t stop.
“I know things can’t go on like this. It’d be a terrible irony to lose my hair to chemo, treating a prostate cancer that I’d incubated to avoid hair loss. But then I’m not looking forward to getting all obsessive again. I’m going bald, I don’t want to go bald, I’m going bald, I don’t want to go bald, I’m going bald, I don’t want to go bald.”
The mental turmoil he has experienced since high school sounds shockingly like the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. If losing your hair can have the same emotional impact as losing a loved one, then it stands to reason that it can be a major attributing factor in depression. Around 50% of Americans with major depression never seek treatment for the illness, and cases like Julian’s could be among them.
Rather than focus on physical and drug therapies to help regrow the hair, we should be giving more time and attention to getting to that final stage, as Andrea Alberti has: acceptance.
colavincenzo northwestern, dr cola dermatologist, maria l, cola skin clinic, hair specialist chicago.