For the past year and a half, a USU professor has been sitting down with teenagers to address and treat a compulsive hair-pulling disorder. At first glance, this research study is not so different from others — and it isn’t, except for the fact that it is all done through telecommunications.
Michael Twohig, USU professor of psychology, studies kids age 12 to 17 who have trichotillomania. The youth engage in “habit reversal training” via a video conferencing program called Zoom.
Trichotillomania is an impulsive disorder that involves recurring compulsions to pull hair from the scalp, face and other areas of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is, for some, a coping mechanism and provides a release that can be addictive. This makes the disorder even harder to treat.
“The prevalence of trichotillomania is as high as other problems,” Twohig said, “but very few people know what it is. And because it is hard to understand, it can be hard to address.”
While Twohig has dedicated most of his career to studying this disorder, the problem that he runs into over and over is that it is really hard to get treatment to people, especially teens. By the time people who struggle with this problem reach adulthood, they are more open and willing to seek treatment. Twohig said it can be more difficult for adolescents.
“There are only a handful of us, in this whole state, that are dedicated to treating this problem,” Twohig said. “And only a dozen researchers across the country.”
While the resources are scarce, Twohig said the disorder isn’t, and it needs special attention when treated. General therapy doesn’t always cut it, Twohig said.
“So that is our question: How do you get a good intervention out to a lot of people?” Twohig said. “So far, this teletherapy is a pretty slick way to get treatment to people around the state.”
Internationally, teletherapy has rapidly gained popularity and credibility, but Twohig said the U.S. seems to have taken a slower approach. It does seem to be gaining momentum, however.
“There are some of these smaller communities that wouldn’t have a trichotillomania provider, and people are needing to trek clear over to another city to be treated,” Twohig said. “Teletherapy increases accessibility and efficiency for everyone involved.”
A concern to this approach has been about the importance of in-person therapy, but Twohig said adolescents, particularly, are becoming more and more comfortable using technology for communication purposes.
Twohig said he is nearing the end of the two-year long study, but there are still about five slots to fill.
“We have had youth from all over the state participate so far,” Twohig said. “This is a unique opportunity for people who are even just wondering if this might be useful for them or someone they know. We hope that expanding the reach of our resources can really help people.”