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Suicide risk: Sinister reality of life with eczema
Eczema’s huge impact can drive people to can drive people with the condition to feel suicidal.
It’s suffered by almost one million Australians, but while many dismiss eczema as a simple skin irritation, it can be so debilitating it drives some people to the brink of suicide.
It’s the disease that won’t kill you but you may kill yourself.
That is the sinister phrase that is well known to those diagnosed with the skin condition eczema.
Some may consider it a simple, annoying skin condition but eczema sufferers are at very high risk of suicide.
Pain, itching and the embarrassment of the red, raw rash drive sufferers to the edge and scientists have also found that eczema is associated with an increase in proinflammatory cytokines which may disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Research shows that sufferers are 44 per cent more likely to display suicidal behaviour and 36 per cent at higher risk of attempting to take their own lives.
Brisbane woman Cheryl Talent has had eczema since she was a baby and was so covered in the raw, angry rash her mother woudn’t take her out in public.
Eczema Association president Cheryl Talent says eczema can make people feel like taking their own lives.
“I am 65 and there have been some very low moments in my life due to the condition. There was one year in my 30s when life was not going well and my eczema was flaring up. You can’t sleep, you can’t stop scratching, you are in constant pain. That’s the thing about eczema it tends to flare up in times of stress and pushes you to the limit. That year I thought about ending it all,” Ms Talent, Eczema Association of Australasia Inc President said.
“Eczema is more than just a physical impact to the skin. While the outward symptoms of eczema may be obvious, the ongoing pain, discomfort, psychological and emotional scars can be so much harder to see,” she said.
“Sufferers often feel frustrated, anxious and embarrassed by their condition. This coupled with missing work and social events because of a flare up can cause a sense of isolation and lead to severe mental health issues, ” Ms Talent said.
Almost one million Australians suffer from some level of eczema and one in three children are sufferers.
Head of Dermatology at Westmead Hospital and Professor of Dermatology at the University of Sydney Pablo Fernandez-Peñas said skin diseases are one of the most impactful sources for a poor quality of life.
“The complexity of eczema means it can have an effect on all areas of a person’s life from physical to mental. Skin conditions are highly visible which can lead to negative self-image and poor self-esteem, impairing quality of life,” Professor Fernandez-Peñas said.
TRIGGERS FOR ECZEMA:
- Family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever
- If both parents have eczema, 80 per cent chance for children
- Wheat, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, seafood, chemical food additives, preservatives
- Irritants are tobacco smoke, chemicals, weather, air-conditioning or overheating
- Allergens: House dust mites, moulds, grasses, plant pollens, foods, pets and clothing, soaps
“The impact of itch is sometimes underestimated in eczema but it has a great effect on patients’ attention and sleep. This leads to higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other mental health issues,” he said.
Jarrod Griffin is 23 and has had eczema his whole life.
“It was pretty bad right through uni and I really struggled to deal with it. I was bedridden a few times and had to give up playing soccer. When you are young and you have eczema on your face it can be hard to feel comfortable socially. It is embarrassing, especially when it comes to dating,” the Sunnybank man said.
“I have never got to the point of considering ending my life but I can fully understand why some people may get to that point,” he said.
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If we have sex, we’ll have to turn the lights off’: Melbourne woman’s experience of dating with eczema
Claire Harwood can’t remember a time when her life wasn’t being impacted by severe eczema. Even when she wasn’t experiencing a flare up, she knew one was just around the corner.
“I remember when I was primary school I didn’t want to go to school,” Claire, 33, tells 9Honey. “Even at that young an age I was aware how I looked was different than other children.”
Doctors kept telling Claire and her mother she would grow out of it, but in their defense, that’s what normally happens with child eczema sufferer cases.
“Even in high school they were still saying I would grow out of it,” she says. By the time she turned 21, Claire accepted severe eczema was something she would just have to learn to live with.
“I told them it wasn’t food related but they thought food was a trigger.”
Claire underwent extensive experimental treatment including elimination diets, using different creams and wearing certain fabrics.
“Something interesting was that when I was 22 I moved from Melbourne to Perth and the eczema didn’t touch me,” she says. “The same thing happened in London. I didn’t get it for four years until I moved back to Melbourne.”
When it hits the eczema gets in everywhere, starting behind her arms and legs and then all over until she ends up in hospital “bandaged up like a burns patient”.
Melbourne is home but Melbourne is also where her eczema is at its worst, and not just because of the colder weather she now knows from her stint in London. But no matter how bad it became over the past 12 months she was stuck there due to COVID.
Her theory is that it has to do with a certain kind of grass strain that is only found in the southern states of Australia, and that could have legs, with grass being a known skin allergy trigger in children.
“Now that I’m in my thirties I have better ways of dealing with treating it,” she says. It’s the mental side of it that she has struggled with the most.
“When it comes to the physical pain you just get on with it and deal with it,” she says. “But I think its really the feeling of being helpless in your own illness, of trying all these things including steroids but as soon as you stop it comes back. Its also feeling like a burden to family and friends, having to cancel every plan or not showing up to work, losing jobs, all the ways it can effect so many areas of your life. You’re not getting sleep, you’re so irritable.”
On her worst days she will bleed from scratching so much and those exposed wounds become infected, necessitating another trip to the hospital.
“Nails break down with eczema so I would use a hair brush but then that’s not satisfying so I’d use a knife to scratch my legs,” she says. “Then you try and talk yourself out of it, don’t scratch, but it feels so good, but don’t do it, you’re going to make it worse.”
She points to her mid-twenties as being her lowest point mentally.
“It breaks down intimate relationships because of not wanting to be physically touched and not feeling good enough in an imaged-based world,” she continues. “I thought everything would be better if I wasn’t here, for everyone else around me.”
She found herself feeling suicidal, but thankfully found others via social media with similar diagnoses who felt the same. Speaking to them, and therapy helped her changed her ‘self talk’ so she could learn to live with the condition.
Claire returned home to Melbourne after a heartbreak in London and began dating.
“When I got back and I was ready to date someone said to me: ‘If we have sex, we’ll have to turn the lights off.'”
When she became upset they said it was to make her feel better, not because they didn’t want to see it.
“I thought everything would be better if I wasn’t here, for everyone else around me.”
It’s important to Claire that people understand eczema isn’t an innocent skin rash. In fact she feels it coming on before it even becomes visible and is filled with dread at what is to come, thinking of the people she may not be able to see and the plans she will have to cancel.
“My worst flare up ever became a skin infection and a blood infection,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll be doing a session in the gym and I feel it is coming because when I sweat it starts to sting.”
Accessing mental health support through social media groups and therapy has been one piece of the puzzle for Claire’s quality of life. The other is staying on top of her physical care.
“For me that’s bleach baths three times a week, wet cloths under old pyjamas at night, changing my clothes and linens to cotton, making sure that if I sleep over at a friend’s house I take my own bedding because if I use their bedsheets I will wake up a mess,” she explains.
She has found laundry powder and shampoo and cleaning products to use around the house to further prevent flare ups.
“When I was living in London and I came back to Melbourne, even though it was spring it flared up and I thought: ‘You know what? I always knew it wasn’t diet. I always knew it wasn’t the other things. It is my body and I am so aware of it and I told you.'”
And as the weather becomes cooler the flare ups are happening but she doesn’t cover it up with clothing anymore because she is not ashamed.
“But in my early twenties even on 40 degree days I’d wear leggings and jumpers to cover it up, but now I still wear dresses and t-shirts.”
It is not the policy of the Eczema Association of Australasia Inc to recommend or endorse any product or treatment.
It is part of the role of the Association to provide information on a wide range of products and treatments to keep those involved with eczema as fully informed as possible as to all options available. For medical advice, consult your health professional.