The psychological effects of bed bugs have been the recent focus of a number of articles. It’s pretty clear that there’s a link between bed bugs and mental health in many individuals. And an article published at the end of May (“Suicide following an infestation of bed bugs”) suggests bed bugs can now be linked to at least one suicide.
In their 2012 study, Psychiatric consequences of actual versus feared and perceived bed bug infestations: a case series examining a current epidemic, Evan Rieder et. al. examined the psychiatric consequences of either having bed bugs — or even simply fearing one has bed bugs. Looking at various case studies, the authors found that
In response to real bed bug infestations, patients may suffer major depressive episodes and anxiety-spectrum disorders, including acute stress disorders, adjustment disorders, and specific phobias. Disorders may be new-onset or the result of worsening of pre-existing conditions. Patients may suffer significant social isolation as a result of stigma, as well as from self-imposed social withdrawal. Depressive episodes may be severe enough to cause suicidality, warrant inpatient hospitalization, and result in lost occupational or educational productivity (88-89).
They also found that
In response to perceived bed bug infestations, patients with a psychotic diathesis may suffer from brief psychotic and delusional disorders (89).
(For others who had trouble with this one, Dictionary.com defines “diathesis”, in terms of pathology, as “a constitutional predisposition or tendency, as to a particular disease or affection”.)
Rieder et. al. suggested that physicians need to anticipate these potential issues and try and identify them in patients:
While mental health providers are the most likely to treat psychological disturbances, the epidemic necessitates that all physicians gain familiarity with bed bug-related psychopathology, screen for psychiatric illness, and make appropriate referrals. We believe that this information is particularly salient for dermatologists, general practitioners, infectious disease specialists, internists, and primary care providers (86).
The authors argue for implementation of the following to lessen the psychological effects of bed bugs (and fear of bed bugs) and support sufferers:
- social support (especially since people fearing or suffering from bed bugs tend to self-isolate),
- public education about bed bugs (which helps with identifying problems and how to treat them), and
- having health care practitioners screen for mental health issues and monitor existing ones, when patients are known to have bed bugs (90).
And they suggest that bed bugs should “be viewed as a serious psychosocial stressor, which may lead to patient decompensation or uncovering of psychiatric illness” (90).
(Incidentally, this article lists the Bedbugger forum entitled “Psychological and Health Problems Caused by Bed Bugs (Besides Bites)” as a reference .)
Jerome Goddard and Richard deShazo have also recently explored the relationship between bed bugs and mental health in their 2012 article, “Psychological Effects of Bed Bug Attacks (Cimex lectularius L.)” (link to full text).
The authors concluded that,
Bed bug infestations and associated bites produce a variety of emotional and psychological reactions, some of which may meet criteria for PTSD, although further research is needed to determine to what extent PTSD may occur after attacks by bed bugs. Our findings suggest that all individuals who experience bites should be queried for symptoms of emotional trauma and be offered psychological counseling where indicated. More accurate and available public health information on the biology, ecology, and health effects of these insects could decrease the level of anxiety associated with bed bug bites.
Again, here, public health education and physician screening are recommended.
Finally, a May 2013 article in the American Journal of Case Reports (“Suicide following an infestation of bed bugs”) reports on the first case of suicide known by doctors to be linked to the victim’s battle with bed bugs in her home.
Authors Stephanie Burrows et. al. describe the woman in this case as follows:
Ms. A was a 62 year old woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder (treated with mood stabilizer), borderline personality, chronic alcoholism and an addiction to gambling. She had suicidal thoughts intermittently since age 25 years and had made three suicide attempts in the past. There had been long periods of abstinence from alcohol and gambling.
Ms. A lived in an apartment in a social housing complex. Six weeks before her death, Ms. A discovered bed bugs in her apartment. An exterminator was called, but four weeks later there was another infestation. During the second visit, the exterminator recommended that all her clothes be placed in plastic bags for three weeks, before a third fumigation of the apartment. Having developed a phobia of the bed bugs, Ms. A requested help to be relocated but could not be accommodated. Ms A resumed her gambling, losing a considerable sum of money. She also resumed her consumption of alcohol, which increased following her losses at the casino.
On the night of her death, she awoke at 3 am and found a drop of blood on her dressing gown.
What happens next, according to Burrows et. al., is chilling.
The woman took the blood on her nightgown to be a sign bed bugs had returned, and wrote a suicide note which made it clear that she had been “depressed since their arrival”; she then took 200 pills, drank a bottle of wine and called her boss to let him know she’d be missing work. He recognized her distress, and called 911, but when emergency services arrived, they were unable to dissuade the woman from jumping off her 17th floor balcony.
Though the woman’s name isn’t mentioned, the case was reported on in the local media in 2011 (almost two years after the woman died) (here’s a Google translation of that article from French into English).
Burrows et. al. conclude that
In addition to a systematic approach to the control and eradication of bed bugs, management of the psychological consequences is also needed. 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. In addition, adequate social support to prevent isolation and cope with the psychological symptoms needs to be provided.
Again, Burrows et. al. echo the other authors in calling for clinicians to actively screen patients for psychological distress, and for more social support for bed bug sufferers. Burrows et. al. also mention the need for “a systematic approach to the control and eradication of bed bugs” — notable since, in this case, the problem seemed to recur a month after the first treatment (which suggests it’s possible more could have been done in terms of treatment and monitoring).
Although Burrows et. al. note that they “know of no other reports in the literature of a suicide explicitly linked to a bed bug infestation,” we have heard anecdotally of at least two other possible cases of bed bug-related suicides in Canada in our Bedbugger Forums and on the Bed Bug Registry.
In September 2008, a Canadian woman who actively participated on our Bedbugger forums for over two years reported that her neighbor committed suicide after being treated for bed bugs for two months.
She noted that while speaking to the multi-unit building’s pest management professional about apartments which had bed bugs, they
… mentioned that Apt. 702 was “showing signs of activity again”. Apt 702??!! That apartment is currently vacant, as the tenant committed suicide on June 30th. One morning, at around 6:00 a.m., she threw herself off the balcony. It was horrible. I remember at the time thinking that it was strange that it occurred early in the morning, and that perhaps she just couldn’t face one more day. I felt so terrible for her.
So I asked the PCO “How long have you been treating the apartment?”
And they replied “Four months”.
Which means the woman battled bedbugs for 2 months and then killed herself.
Of course, there’s no way to know whether or how much bed bugs affected the woman’s mental state in this case, or what pre-existing conditions were present. Nevetheless, it seems quite possible that there was a link.
Then, in February 2009, a poster on the Bed Bug Registry wrote on the page for 4175 Lawrence Avenue East, claiming that the poster’s building has bed bugs “on every floor”, that apartments were sprayed weekly for bed bugs, and that s/he had had bed bugs in his/her unit for at least a year.
And, chillingly, the poster claimed that
In January 2009, the man that lived in unit #1306 KILLED HIMSELF because he couldn’t handle the mental stress of getting CHEWED UP by bed bugs anymore.
He wrote several letters to the building INSISTING that they “once and for all” rid his unit of its bedbug problem OR MOVE HIM TO ANOTHER UNIT, OR HE WOULD TAKE HIS OWN LIFE.
The poster goes on to claim to have been “told ‘secretly’ by staff” that there had been three suicides in the building in the past year “because of bed bugs.”
Obviously, we have no way of verifying the accuracy of this anecdote.
However, we do routinely hear from people in the Bedbugger Forums who are suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions (also including phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, acute stress disorder) which they report as being exacerbated by bed bugs, or in some cases even triggered by their bed bug situation.
This site has a policy on posts mentioning suicide (the policy is explained further here: “Forum Rules”). We aren’t qualified to offer counseling, so we close these threads down and direct the writer to seek help immediately from a medical or mental health professional and refer them to additional resources online (see “If you are feeling suicidal, or anxious“).
For anyone who’s reading this and suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, whether new or ongoing, and whether due to bed bugs, or from fear you may have bed bugs, please seek immediate assistance from a medical or mental health professional. If necessary, go to an Emergency Room. There is help available for these conditions. Please do not harm yourself.
Ultimately, articles such as the three described here may be very helpful in helping medical and mental health professionals understand the need for psychological screening for patients who have or suspect bed bugs.
I agree with these authors’ various calls for such screening, for more public health education about bed bugs, and more social support for sufferers who often isolate themselves out of a fear of spreading bed bugs. These studies remind us that having bed bugs — or even not knowing if one has them — can be much more than a “nuisance” to those affected. I hope there will be continued research on the relationship between bed bugs and mental health.
Burrows S, Perron S, Susser S. Suicide following an infestation of bed bugs (link to full article) Am J Case Rep. 2013; 14: 176–178. Published online 2013 May 29. doi: 10.12659/AJCR.883926
Goddard J, de Shazo R. Psychological effects of bed bug attacks (Cimex lectularius L.) (full-text). Am J Med. 2012;125(1):101–3. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2011.08.010.
Rieder E, Hamalian G, Maloy K, et al. Psychiatric consequences of actual versus feared and perceived bed bug infestations: a case series examining a current epidemic. Psychosomatics. 2012;53(1):85–91. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2011.08.001.