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The Dramatic Psychological Toll Of A Common Household Pest

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

One little word — “bedbugs” — is enough to strike fear in the hearts of most city dwellers. Bedbug infestations have been on the rise over the past five years, and they’ve become so closely associated with major cities like New York that government officials now offer detailed information about how to spot and kill the pests on health department websites.

Health officials emphasize that bedbugs, which can cause itchy welts but ultimately affect each person differently, are not known to spread disease. But that doesn’t mean they have no consequences for victims’ wellbeing. A growing body of scientific research links bedbug infestations with mental health problems — symptoms ranging from insomnia to anxiety to depression. There have even been a few case studies on people who have attempted suicide after struggling to eradicate bedbugs.

There’s something about the bugs being in our bedroom that’s especially disturbing.

“The mental health thing is very real,” Brooke Borel, whose new book, Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, contains interviews with dozens of people who have dealt with bedbugs in their homes, told ThinkProgress. “Mental health issues were constant across all people I interviewed. I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who’s had bedbugs and has been like — eh, no big deal.”

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Bedbugs are most active at night, when people are most vulnerable and they can feed undetected. Their human hosts don’t feel the bites at the time because the bugs inject an anesthetic to create a numbing effect. Unsurprisingly, it’s hard for most people to get a restful night’s sleep when they’re worried about bloodsucking insects surreptitiously biting them in the middle of the night.

Plus, it feels like an invasion of what’s supposed to be one of our safest spaces. Borel said that, according to the mental health professionals she interviewed, “there’s something about the bugs being in our bedroom that’s especially disturbing — since that’s the place that’s supposed to be our sanctuary, where we’re supposed to be able to rest and get a break from the rest of the world.” So, amid an infestation of bedbugs, even individuals who aren’t typically prone to mental health issues can find themselves struggling with insomnia and anxiety.

And the critters take their toll in other ways. It becomes isolating when friends and family members are too nervous to be around you. It’s easy to feel paranoid that you’ve never truly exterminated the bedbugs since, while visible to the human eye, they’re very good at hiding themselves from sight. It’s difficult to feel confident that your possessions are ever truly clean.

Borel, who dealt with three separate bedbug infestations while working as a science writer in New York City, can personally relate to the emotional themes that emerged when she was conducting research for Infested.

My space and all of my belongings turned from being sources of comfort to sources of stress.

So can Kristen, who now lives in New York City but got bedbugs in an old apartment in Washington, DC. Kristen, who didn’t want to print her real name, told ThinkProgress that she would be much more paranoid if she hadn’t moved.

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“The whole experience was awful all around, but for me the worst part was feeling as though my space and all of my belongings turned from being sources of comfort to sources of stress,” Kristen wrote via email. “I was never comfortable while I was at home. I was also very anxious, specifically around bedtime. That was weird because I’m not a typically nervous or worried person.”

A sales manager for Protect A Bed displays literature during the first North American Bed Bug Summit, held in Illinois in 2010 CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
A sales manager for Protect A Bed displays literature during the first North American Bed Bug Summit, held in Illinois in 2010 CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

For people with existing psychiatric issues, it’s much worse. Researchers have documented at least one case where a bedbug infestation appears to have tipped a struggling Canadian woman over the edge. The 62-year-old woman, who had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, jumped to her death from her balcony minutes after sending an email to a friend explaining she had been depressed since the bedbugs arrived and could not stand to “live in fear of me being eaten alive.”

Other case studies that have been published in recent years include a previously stable 22-year-old woman with bipolar disorder who significantly regressed in the midst of a bedbug infestation, and a 35-year-old man with history of untreated depression whose bedbugs led him to socially withdraw and become compulsive about scrubbing his home with bleach.

It’s physically, mentally, and financially demanding to get rid of bedbugs, a process that involves hiring an exterminator, disinfecting your home with pesticides, and washing all of your laundry on high heat. Furniture can’t always be salvaged and sometimes just needs to be thrown out, whether or not its owners can afford to replace it.

It’s ongoing, never-ending torture that can drive people crazy.

And in cities, where tenants might have trouble convincing their landlord to take steps to disinfect the entire building, bedbugs can easily come back even if they’ve been stamped out of an individual unit. People with limited resources who live in close quarters in low-income housing or retirement communities are particularly vulnerable to ongoing bedbug infestations, since they may not have the financial means to pay for professional help or purchase new clothing.

“It’s ongoing, never-ending torture that can drive people crazy,” Borel said.

For the past several years, some experts have been working to publicize the psychological consequences of bedbugs more broadly. When people seek medical attention for bites, doctors may want to check in on their mental health, too.

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“Clinicians should be alert to psychological distress that often accompanies an infestation of bed bugs and should ask targeted questions to determine whether an anxiety-depressive pathology is present in order to respond appropriately,” concluded the researchers who published the case study about the woman driven to suicide by her bedbugs. “In addition, adequate social support to prevent isolation and cope with the psychological symptoms needs to be provided.”

But the enduring social stigma surrounding bedbugs presents something of a barrier. There are still a lot of myths suggesting that the people who get bedbugs must be dirty or poor or doing something wrong. Despite the fact that, according to a recent survey, one in five Americans has either had a bedbug infestation in their own home or knows someone who has, most people don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Like Kristen, none of the people interviewed in Borel’s book about their experience with bedbugs in their homes agreed to use their real names.

In general people are very reluctant to talk about it.

“In general people are very reluctant to talk about it. They’re afraid of being judged, or afraid their friends and family won’t want to be around them,” Borel noted. She said whenever she would tell her fellow New Yorkers that she was writing a book about bedbugs, they would initially react with horror — only to corner her later and confess that they once had bedbugs too. They desperately wanted to talk more about it with her because they hadn’t disclosed the details to anyone else.

Long after bedbugs are eradicated, and even after completely relocating cities, the memory of what it was like to deal with an infestation can haunt people for years.

“In my post-bedbug life, I never buy any furniture from Craigslist, and never pick anything up off of curbs — not even mirrors or shelves or non-cushion-y things, no matter how cool and free they might be,” Kristen said. “I give beds or sofas on the sidewalk a comically wide berth when I walk past them.”