Peer Support Retreat for Trich May Be as Effective as Therapy

Trudi Griffin - LPC
Aug 24th, 2019

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Treatments for trichotillomania run the gamut with cognitive-behavioral therapies such as habit reversal training and acceptance and commitment therapy ranking high for level of effectiveness. However, a study conducted in Australia presents another form of treatment modality using peer support that shows promise.

Holistic Recovery

During treatment, people with trich learn to manage behaviors, but they also work through the emotional toll of pulling. Many people with trich feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt because the disorder affects appearance, which increases social judgment. Therefore, addressing those feelings as well as anxiety, stress, depression, trauma or other mental health issues that accompany trich is an essential part of therapy. Often, social support in the form of groups or connecting with others further along in recovery gives people a boost. However, one challenge with compulsive hair pulling is its chronic, episodic nature which means a person can feel like recovery is a success and then experience a lapse.

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Peer Support Intervention Study
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The study in Australia evaluated a different treatment intervention. The intervention was a three-day residential peer-support retreat. Eight women volunteered to attend and agreed to interviews before and after the program. Then, the researchers followed up with them at six months and at 12 months to see if they thought the program was still effective. The collected data suggest that brief, intense, peer-supported retreats may have benefits similar to cognitive-behavioral therapies. The interviews also revealed what participants thought helped most. The group activities gave them space to talk about their experiences, normalized them in a safe environment, and enhanced motivation to change. The individual activities prepared participants for change and taught self-regulation skills to manage behaviors.

This model of therapy is reminiscent of the recovery community model used in substance use treatment. It comes from the idea that successful recovery addresses more than one set of behaviors, such as substance use. Recovery is holistic and includes relational, environmental, cultural, and recreational aspects as well. Although this theory of recovery targeted substance use and mental health issues, it applies to any recovery. For people with trich, holistic recovery is also necessary because like substance use recovery, it is a lifelong journey that needs comprehensive support. That comprehensive support does not always need to be from a paid professional, however, and the Australian study shows that short, peer-support retreats can be as effective as therapy conducted by a therapist.

Recovery retreats like the one studied can also support people with trich who completed therapy but need the added boost of social support during stressful times of the year. For example, back to school is stressful whether a person with trich is in school, college, or the parent of school-age children. Just like a booster shot or immunization, a well-timed peer support retreat could make a significant difference in preventing lapses associated with stress.

Without full details about the schedule during the retreat, the exact mechanisms at work in the success of the participants is not known. Also, the number of participants was small; only eight adult women attended, which suggests that if it were a group of teenage males, the results might have been different. Further, since the participants self-referred to the event, there was no data about the style of pulling behaviors the women experienced. Every study has its limitations though. This one introduces promising data that will hopefully be replicated elsewhere in the world and with different populations. Additionally, if you or someone you know struggles with trich and they find out about a peer-supported retreat or camp or networking event, this data shows that those opportunities can produce positive results.

Since recovery from compulsive hair pulling involves comprehensive treatment, consider peer-supported opportunities like the one studied as part of recovery.  

Trudi Griffin - LPC


Education, experience, and compassion for people informs Trudi's research and writing about mental health. She holds a Master of Science degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Addictions and Mental Health from Marquette University, with Bachelor’s degrees in Communications and Psychology from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. Before committing to full-time research and writing, she practiced as a Licensed Professional Counselor providing therapy to people of all ages who struggled with addictions, mental health problems, and trauma recovery in community health settings and private practice.

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