Sense and Sensitivity: ‘clearing up’ emotional acne scars

Sarah Wood is one of five new Features columnists who will be writing each fortnight. Sarah’s column is based around the title ‘Sense and sensitivity’ which will explore health and social well being as a way of raising awareness of issues that a lot of students suffer with but are not spoken or written about as often as they ought to be.

In her first columnist post of the year, Sarah Wood looks at the emotional effects of acne and the lasting emotional scarring it can leave. Should more emotional, as well as physical support, be given to those with acne?

A Canadian study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that depression can occur even in the mildest cases of acne and that the 15-24 age group are the most affected. This study is frightening considering just how many students this involves. If we haven’t grappled with acne ourselves, it is likely that we know someone who has.

There are a wealth of treatments available from pills to lotions and even laser treatments for those who can afford it, and hopefully after much trial and error we find the most successful treatment for us. Even if the acne clears and we finally have the clear (or at least less red) skin everyone else has. I ask what about the emotional scarring acne leaves behind. How do we deal with ‘clearing up’ the low self-esteem, the social withdrawal, and the poor confidence that is often a by-product of acne?

A study has found that depression can occur even in the most mild cases of acne

Aged seventeen and right at the beginning of my A-levels I experienced my first acne breakout. Talk about bad timing. I couldn’t bear to leave the house, I became socially anxious, and consumed by a deep embarrassment. School was a place I always thrived in and enjoyed, and suddenly I became painfully aware of the amount of people there were in one small space, and how many would have to look at my face throughout the day. I proceeded to spend the days looking down and avoiding eye contact, no longer actively participating in class and my ability to interact with other students suffered.

It wasn’t until I went to the doctors and was informed that Acne Vulgaris is thought to be caused by an imbalance of hormones, and is not directly linked to diet and lifestyle that I began to feel a little more positive about dealing with the issue. Initially I was convinced that I had caused this myself as a result of poor skin hygiene. Around school all I could hear were the voices of my peers whispering “doesn’t she wash her face” or when I stood in line in the canteen with a cookie “the last thing she needs is more sugar”. In reality no one probably cared or noticed my acne, but for me it was as though I had a vulgar tattoo on my face and was asking for negative judgement wherever I went.

I was prescribed Limecycline tablets to take once a day for six months. They didn’t work. My volcanic face only started to clear up when I was eighteen and prescribed DalacinT topical solution. This is a liquid antibiotic that you apply directly to the affected area (my whole face). To this day I still use DalacinT habitually and highly recommend it to other acne sufferers.

In hindsight I am fascinated that such a cosmetic problem as a ‘spotty face’ effected my life socially, educationally, and mentally. Going to the beach or the pool with friends was a terrifying thought; the thought of bare skin exposure was tear inducing. I would avoid parties because all of the other girls had clear skin, whilst I would have to pile my face in makeup aggravating the problem and making me feel like I had an angry bee under my skin.

I had a part time job in a retail store and I would always volunteer to work in the changing rooms or stock room, in an attempt to come into contact with as little of the public as possible. Parties and work should have been ways to help me grow and blossom socially but they just made me more anxious and fearful. Writing this now it sounds as though I overreacted and blew my acne out of proportion. Perhaps acne is a little easier to deal with as an adult when you have other more prominent problems and have already jumped the hurdle of learning how to form relationships with others. However, at seventeen years old when you are just learning how to form serious bonds and relationships the fear of negative appraisal and the anxiety of not being accepted by others makes you feel frozen and deters you from forming those bonds.

Acne can leave scars deeper than those that are visible - Source: Huffington Post

When I get an acne breakout now I do not get as low as I would have done then, I don’t avoid people, and I don’t hide away in the house. I just get on with it, if you like. After repeated episodes of acne followed by mild depressive episodes I’m tired and bored. I approach acne differently as an adult and I am adamant not to let it control my emotions anymore, but the scars still pulsate ever so softly and threaten to rip open and bleed.

I am concerned that simply offering teenagers or adults lotions and pills to treat acne just isn’t enough. In an ideal world medical staff and dermatologists would have the resources and time to treat acne from a physical and emotional aspect, an acne care package! If this is not feasible perhaps we can do something?

We could campaign to have schools teach students in detail how acne is caused and that whilst it can be controlled with diet, it isn’t necessarily a result of diet. That acne is not something to be ashamed of but it isn’t uncommon the feel that way and they do not need to suffer silently. If you can go to a school counsellor to discuss issues such as mental health there should be no shame in going to discuss acne and subsequent feelings of depression. Giving acne and its emotional effects more time, prominence, and speech are treatments we can give to other sufferers for free. We can use vigilance and sensitivity to notice those suffering with acne and address the social isolation. If that cannot happen, well we must be strong enough to help ourselves and do away with the pessimistic attitude that our acne will never vanish. I wish I had been as strong at seventeen as I am now.

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

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