Study: Bedbugs can drive some people crazy
Crain's New York Business
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Bedbugs are enough to give anyone the whim whams. But for New
Yorkers already struggling with mental illness, bedbug
infestations-and even just the possibility of them-are sending some
patients over the edge, a team of NYU Langone Medical Center
In an abstract of an unpublished study presented at a recent
meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Honolulu, the
doctors told of patients whose conditions worsened because of the
creepy critters. "We are not saying bedbugs cause psychosis," said
Dr. Evan Rieder, a psychiatry resident at the medical center, but
the bedbug is increasingly being seen as "a psycho-social
stressor," just like losing a job, going through a divorce or
having a death in the family. That can bring out latent illness or
worsen existing mental conditions.
At Stern Environmental Group in Secaucus, N.J., a large
bedbug-exterminating firm whose clients include several New York
City hospitals, managing partner Douglas Stern said the report did
not surprise him. "We've known for years that even normal people
have a psychological response to bed bugs," Mr. Stern said.
"Society's more concerned about people with medical problems and
maybe people don't put the same value on bedbugs causing this kind
of mental suffering so it's good they did this study."
Intense media interest in the infestations is also contributing
to patients' fears, said Dr. Gareen Hamalian, also a psychiatric
resident at NYU. The abstract charted a dramatic spike in the
number of media reports on bedbugs.
Dr. Rieder said he found the patients by talking to colleagues
in clinics, private doctors' offices and in hospital emergency
departments. The problem is widespread, he said: "When we presented
this at the APA meeting, which is attended by people from all over
the world, it resonated with a lot of them."
New York patients described anonymously in the study included a
22-year-old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder whose illness was
under control until she found bedbugs in her apartment. According
to the study, she hired an exterminator but the resulting fees and
anxiety led to depression, hopelessness and "significant social
isolation," including a forced leave from her work. Things got
better three weeks after the exterminator left, but then she found
another bug-and all her symptoms returned.
The patients' stories point to an unmet need, the authors
suggest. "The psychiatric implications of bedbugs are important to
consider and treat when attempting to control and contain
infestations. [In extreme cases,] impairment may be significant
enough to cause suicidality and warrant inpatient
In another case, a 49-year-old woman living in a housing project
was dealing with chronic paranoid schizophrenia when a bedbug
infestation added to her problems. According to the study, "her
boyfriend stopped visiting and her church asked her not to return
after bedbugs were found in pews." Social service agencies came to
her rescue. A case manager saw that workers were hired to clean the
apartment, discard her belongings and then exterminate. But the
patient had to be hospitalized for a month, both because her mental
state was worsened and because she had anemia apparently due to
blood loss from bedbug bites. With help she was able to return to
the apartment, only to inadvertently re-infest it. "She transferred
bedbugs from her mother's apartment," the study said. The patient
was re-admitted to a hospital.
Though those patients' problems involved real bugs, the study
also cited a case of a 35-year-old man with was convinced bedbugs
were biting him-despite negative findings by several dermatologists
and an exterminator who went to his apartment. Though the man had
never been treated for mental illness, psychiatrists diagnosed him
with a delusional disorder, one he may still have. "He voiced
conviction that daily scrubbing with household bleaches was the
only reason for [improvement] of his symptoms," the doctors
Infestation may even have played a role in another patient's
suicide attempt, though alcohol abuse was involved, the study
In addition to making their profession more aware of the
phenomenon, the study's authors hope their findings, which they
expect to be published in a journal, will lead to a public
education campaign addressing the need to contain infestations.
Mr. Stern said the bedbug problem shows no signs of going away.
"It's seasonal," he explained. "They'll come out in the warm
weather. It's quiet now but everything I hear says this summer's
going to be worse than last."