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December 2013

Psychological, professional effects of hair loss require special attention

Hair loss, known clinically as alopecia, is a deceptive affliction. Its physical effects can be seen in varying degrees depending on the extent of hair loss, but its most profound impact cannot be seen by the naked eye.

hair loss

Instead, only the sufferer knows the depths of emotional anguish that hair loss can cause.

It may sound overly dramatic, but hair is one of the first things others notice, and a lack of it can have a big impact on self-esteem. In some cases, that’s true even if the hair loss is not visible to others.  

Alopecia is a chronic disorder that has three subtypes: alopecia areata, the loss of patches of hair from the head and the most responsive to treatment; alopecia totalis, the loss of all hair on the head; and alopecia universalis, the loss of all head and body hair.

Technically, alopecia is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the hair follicles and can be diagnosed by a dermatologist.

It is neither life threatening nor painful, though there can be irritation of the skin, as well as physical problems resulting from the loss of eyelashes and eyebrows.

Doctors still aren’t sure of the exact cause, though they do know it is an autoimmune disorder that arises from both genetic and environmental influences.

A link to perceptions of beauty

“It affects everybody differently, but there is a large portion of people where it affects them severely psychologically and it’s almost devastating,” explains Dr. Kenneth Stein, who specializes in hair restoration and is affiliated with Embassy Studio in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “It takes away their self-esteem, and by bringing [their hair] back, it changes their whole outlook on life.”

A study in the British Medical Journal found that “the experience of alopecia is psychologically damaging, causes intense emotional suffering, and leads to personal, social, and work related problems” in some people.

Additionally, there seem to be more psychological effects of hair loss in women, because hair is often a key component of beauty.

About 40 percent of women with alopecia have had marital problems as a consequence, and about 63 percent claim to have had career-related problems, according to the study.

“For women, it’s totally devastating when they lose their hair, because women are supposed to have hair, and guys take it in different strides,”

Stein explains. “Fortunately for the guys that are bald, there’s the icon Michael Jordan, who shaved his head when he didn’t need to and showed that you can live with that.”

Of course, the majority of people would rather have hair, says Stein.  

“You look at yourself and everybody critiques themselves, and having hair is something that physically, socially, emotionally looks better when you have it,” he adds. “Certainly as a woman, it’s just not acceptable to not have hair.”

Appearance may trump health

Anxiety and depression are common responses to hair loss, and it can become a vicious cycle: The more hair a person loses, the more he or she may become depressed and avoid social situations.

In fact, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center Department of Dermatology found that psychiatric disorders are more common in people with alopecia than in the general population, which suggests that “those with alopecia may be at higher risk for developing a serious depressive episode, anxiety disorder, social phobia, or paranoid disorder,” according to the study.

“It’s extremely important to have good health, but that doesn’t matter to everybody. What does matter to almost everybody is how they look,” says Stein. “That’s why people wear nice clothing, that’s why they wear jewelry.”

According to Stein, hair loss can be extremely unnerving because an individual may hyper focus on it. They lose that psychological edge in their personal and professional lives.

“Anytime you do an interview with somebody looking for a job, you’re looking for confidence in that person, and it may or may not have to do with how their hair is, but it has to do with how they handle themselves based on that,” he explains. “I think that people who have a full head of hair tend to be a little more confident in themselves.”