The Psychological Impact of Vitiligo
Medically reviewed by Dr. Anna-Lisa Stonehill, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at OC Health Care Agency.
Skin – one of the most defining features of our external appearance – can greatly influence our identity and self-esteem. For some, skin can be a source of pride, confidence and even heritage. For others, especially those living with skin diseases or conditions, skin can cause feelings of loss, devastation, and embarrassment. In fact, according to a recent study, poor emotional and mental health is experienced in at least one-third of those who live with diverse skin conditions.
For those living with vitiligo, the condition is often a lifelong one. Although there are different treatments that can manage and prevent the depigmentation from spreading, vitiligo does not yet have a cure. As a result, those with vitiligo often navigate school, careers, relationships, and major life milestones while grappling with the loss of pigmentation – and possibly an entire identity. While some embrace the change in skin color, for others the experience can cause psychological distress and ultimately, sentiments of anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.
If you have vitiligo and are experiencing any of these psychological symptoms, you aren’t alone. Recognizing and acknowledging the mental and emotional impact of vitiligo in your life can be a first step to identifying avenues for coping. Here’s how vitiligo can influence your everyday life.
Anxiety is different for everyone. While some may experience mild anxiety that can be easily managed, others may experience both mental and physical effects that are not only overwhelming but can be debilitating. Anxiety can result in sentiments of unease, nervousness, and restlessness as well as an elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, and perspiration. At times, anxiety can arise out of the blue with no evident cause. However, particular situations or experiences can also fuel these uncomfortable sensations in the mind and body.
Those with vitiligo may find that social interactions and the feeling of a lack of control over the condition are some of the biggest triggers of anxiety. Some individuals have related experiencing panic attacks and crippling fear in the face of the “unknown” in terms of not knowing how their vitiligo will progress. For others, anxiety can play a big role in day-to-day life as they navigate personal relationships, careers and more while personally grappling with the condition and reactions from others.
Low self-esteem can be defined as a lack of confidence in yourself, negative thoughts about your achievements, negative perceptions about your capabilities or a sense of inferiority in comparison to others. It is estimated that 85% of people suffer from low self esteem arising from a plethora of different factors including appearance, employment, or finances.
For those with vitiligo, low self-esteem most often stems from emotions emanating from one’s appearance. It’s natural to want to “fit in” and “be normal.” In fact, it’s human nature. Yet when you live with a condition that can drastically change your appearance, “fitting in” may not always be possible. Stares or even innocent looks from others, no matter the motivation, can perpetuate insecurities.
Depression is a mood disorder that can cause an overwhelming sense of sadness, an overall loss of motivation, and trouble functioning on a daily basis even in the completion of regular activities. Additionally, depression may cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbances, altered appetite, weight fluctuations and difficulty with mental processing.
Some individuals who struggle with depression and experience impairments in their day-to-day existence are often unable to pinpoint the reason why. This in turn makes addressing one’s depression all the more challenging a process.
One of the most common triggers for depression when living with vitiligo is the sense of feeling alone and misunderstood. Only 1% of the world lives with vitiligo and until recently, vitiligo was not as prevalent in mainstream media. The unique experience of losing pigment can be misunderstood by friends and family. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone in your experience. Although you may try to share your feelings with loved ones, they may not be able to provide the support you’re seeking.
If you are struggling with any of these emotions, there are numerous resources and avenues that you can pursue for support. You can speak to a counselor/therapist or reach out to others with vitiligo by joining a network or community.
Meenu Reddy is a medical student originally from the West Coast. She is interested in the psychological effects of different diseases and reaction patterns on persons of color and hopes to advocate for and empower her future patients to feel confident in their skin. In her free time, she enjoys practicing and teaching yoga as well as spending time with her friends and family.