By Afiya M. Mbilishaka, Clinical Psychologist and Hairstylist

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Our hair care and hair restoration industries are teeming with professionals who are deeply empathic and recognize that hair loss is a stressful life experience for our clients. However, most of us were taught little about the emotional labor required to support clients grieving the loss of their hair. 

What do we say when a client becomes tearful when describing the missing patches of hair? How do we soothe a client when they express panic from a disappointing prognosis? What emotional disorders emerge after the diagnosis of alopecia? The emotional responses to hair loss can often be more severe than the physical changes to our clients’ scalps. 

As a clinical psychologist and hairstylist, I am often positioned to give a check-up from the neck up. I support my clients in the psycho-emotional impacts of hair loss and train professionals in the hair care industry to do the same.

Now, I want to detangle the emotional weight of hair loss and strategies for emotion-focused coping.

Hair and Identity

Hair represents a complex language system. Our hair has the power to define who we are and express dimensions of our identity through an evolving visual grammar. How we style our hair is a meaningful detail of our daily ritual to enter the social world. In many traditional societies in Africa and Asia, hair communicated someone’s age, religion, marital status, and occupation. Today, we post images and videos of ourselves on social media to advertise and archive our good hair days as a means to internalize positive self-worth. 

Often, long and dense hair is a personal and cultural ideal for women within a Western framework of beauty. Additionally, bi-weekly trips for a haircut at the barbershop facilitate a sense of emotional bonding and belonging for men. What happens when we do not fulfill those beauty standards or touchpoints due to hair loss? We lose a key part of our self-image, self-expression and identity.

 

Emotional Impacts of Hair Loss

Hair loss can trigger a range of psycho-emotional consequences and disorders. Hair loss can feel life-altering and therefore results in feelings of lowered self-esteem, self-consciousness, and embarrassment in social situations. With a slow or rapid hair loss, people may avoid social activities to reduce these feelings, which in turn results in a sense of isolation. 

Mental health researchers have studied and documented a high prevalence of depression, anxiety, social phobia, and paranoia in patients experiencing hair loss. Additionally, high levels of stress and trauma can cause hair loss and hair loss induces additional stress. Higher rates of emotional distress are reported in women than in men due to social constructs of appearance politics. People suffer from the emotional toll of hair loss. Further, researchers have found that these emotions cause a decline in social relationships and career success. All these factors combined can even lead to thoughts of suicide. Clearly, we need strategies to help clients cope with this diminished quality of life. 

 

Emotional First Aid for Hair Loss

Hair care and hair restoration professionals are often the first responders to this hair loss epidemic. The good news is that you can use PsychoHairapy. PsychoHairapy is the practice of using hair as an entry point into mental health care. Hundreds of professionals are trained in this technique to support emotional crises that can be triggered by hair loss and other stressors. 

I think we can all remember the term “HAIR,” so H.A.I.R. is an acronym used to apply emotional first aid to hair clients. 

The H encourages hair care professionals to assess for Harm. Does your client express potential harm to self or others in conversation? If so, stay present, reduce the potential for harm and create a safety plan. 

The A directs hair care professionals to engage in Active listening. It is helpful to repeat back the feelings and concerns of our clients to make sure that you have heard everything correctly. 

The I signals Insight. This is an opportunity for us as hair care professionals to share information about our understanding of all of the options that the person has related to hair loss therapies and restoration, and normalize that many people experience emotional distress. 

Finally, the R identifies the importance of Referrals. We should all adopt a therapist; create a resource list for mental health providers that can support a client through feelings of anxiety and depression. 

There are so many ways that we can better support clients and offer a holistic care experience. To learn more, consider becoming certified in PsychoHairapy through a 12-hour course to manage a range of emotional responses of our hair clients. www.psychohairapy.org