The following is a snippet of a recent paper that I have written regarding a disorder that seriously lacks attention:
“Late at night, I sit at the end of the sofa, pull the shade off the lamp and allow the bright light to expose hundreds of beautiful hairs. My focus is intense and with great concentration, I locate very fine hairs and pluck them. This gives me great pleasure and the sharp pain relaxes me. The concentration takes me away. I love releasing the once buried little hairs and pulling them. With great luck, I find the thick hairs, some with their black sac still attached. I save those hairs like trophies carefully laying them along the arm of the sofa, black against white. […] now I go to bed exhausted but satisfied.” (Penzel, 2003, p. 10)
This scenario depicts the experience of some sufferers of trichotillomania. The term can be traced back to 1889 when it was first defined by French physician Halipeau (Long, Miltenberger & Rapp, 2006, p. 133). The term itself is Greek in origin; trich refers to hair, tillo refers to pull, and mania refers to madness (Penzel, 2003, p. 2). There is a tendency for this disorder to be more common among females and to develop in childhood or early adolescence (Long et al., 2006, p. 137). Trichotillomania is also commonly associated with other disorders such as mood or anxiety (Long et al., 2006, p. 138). Common areas of pulling are the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, face, limbs, and pubic area (Penzel, 2003, p. 8). The physical and emotional costs of this disorder can be debilitating. A number of physical consequences may include calluses on finger tips, strain injuries such as in the neck and back, infections such as on the eyelids and pubic area, and the development of gastrointestinal problems from the swallowing of hair or what is called trichophagy (Penzel, 2003, p. 4). Subsequently, “feelings of shame, helplessness, isolation, and frustration can take a tremendous toll on sufferers” (Penzel, 2003, p. 5). Although, it is estimated to affect roughly 2.5 million people in the United States, the actual rate of occurrence is often inaccurate due to misdiagnoses and extraordinary attempts at disguising or concealing the disorder (Kelly, McCormick & White Kress, 2004, p. 2). The fourth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders currently groups trichotillomania with other Axis I impulse control disorders such as pyromania and kleptomania and is defined by the following criterion:
A. Recurrent pulling out of one’s hair resulting in noticeable hair loss.
B. Feeling of tension immediately before pulling hair out or when attempting to pull hair out.
C. Sense of pleasure, gratification, or relief when pulling out hair.
D. Hair pulling is not better explained by the presence of some other disorder.
E. Hair pulling causes significant distress and an impairment of the ability to function in an important area of one’s life. (Penzel, 2003, p. 2)
The assessment of trichotillomania is conducted through several non-standard and standard measures. The initial interview establishes the baseline and allows the clinician to gather a complete picture of the presenting behaviour and its effect on the individual’s life. Standardized tests help to assess the severity of the disorder; however there is an obvious deficiency in strong assessment measures and Breckenridge et al. (1999) suggest that this is in part due to the scales’ context (p. 168). Results from various studies suggest that a multi-method approach is most effective when assessing trichotillomania. “An ideal TM measure would include homogeneous subscales that measure situational variables, affective states, and sensory stimuli associated with hair pulling behaviour in addition to frequency, duration, and interference of symptoms” (Breckenridge et al., 1999, p. 168). To date, trichotillomania lacks answers to such questions as whether the disorder is conceptually related to OCD or more similar to other disorders such as skin picking (Penzel, 2000, p. 1). The controversy with respect to etiology has an extensive impact on assessment methods and tools. Inevitably, assessment influences treatment and treatment affects outcome, so this begs the question: are trichotillomaniacs obtaining appropriate benefits from current methods?