Bed bugs cause more than just itching — they can lead to serious mental health problems too, study finds

‘The issue with bed bugs is that you’re going to bed and you know that at any time some insect will bite you, and you’re at your most vulnerable,’ said Dr. Stéphane Perron

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Tom Blackwell
Tom Blackwell

As she met the man at the door of his east-end Toronto apartment, Sharon Younger witnessed a scene she says belonged in a Stephen King novel.

“He was oblivious to how bad his problem was,” Ms. Younger said of her neighbour’s bed bug infestation. “There were bugs going through his hair, coming out of his ear, blood-soaked tissues. There were thousands and thousands in his apartment.”

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The tenant activist and her pest-control committee had the unit treated. Months later, the man she had assumed had psychiatric troubles — he used to be seen shuffling zombie-like through the hallways at night — had undergone a remarkable change. “He had a cheery ‘Hello,’ he wasn’t slurring his words, he was walking more upright and purposefully. … He wasn’t mentally ill at all. He was suffering the insidious effects of bed bugs.”

The Scarborough resident said she sees every day how the fallout from infestations stretches far beyond the obvious itching and scratching, and now a new Canadian study has provided the first scientific evidence of the insects’ mental-health repercussions, concluding that bug victims  are much more likely than others to suffer anxiety disorder, sleeplessness and possibly depression.

Doctors should be aware of the possibility of psychological distress in bed-bug patients and help provide the appropriate insect-eradication or mental-health help if needed, the Montreal-based researchers say.

They bill their study as the first to detail the psychological impact of a global resurgence of the blood-sucking insects.

“The issue with bed bugs is that you’re going to bed and you know that at any time some insect will bite you, and you’re at your most vulnerable, you’re sleeping,” said Dr. Stéphane Perron of the Montreal public-health department, University of Montreal and McGill University. “You cannot protect yourself.”

Bed bugs have returned to cities in recent years, with surveys suggesting that close to 3% of Montreal’s 1.9 million residents — about 57,000 people — have had problems with the pests.

Dr. Perron and colleagues compared 39 people exposed to the insects with 52 free of infestation at two housing complexes in the city that had been targeted by the public-health office because of unfit-housing conditions. The participants in the research, just published in the British Medical Journal Open, completed standard questionnaires designed to measure symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems.

Those with bed-bug infestations were found to be about five times as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and sleep disturbance, and 2.5 times as likely to be depressed, although the small numbers with depression make that finding not statistically significant.

Dr. Perron said the results need to be replicated in follow-up research but seem to fall in line with the panic and disorientation he has observed in people plagued by the bugs.

Ms. Younger said she attributes the stresses partly to the social isolation of being bed-bug afflicted, noting that many people end up being shunned by family and friends. They also feel constant wariness, “an automatic visceral reaction when they see a speck on the floor — ‘Is that a bed bug?’ ”

But she said sleep deprivation is perhaps the biggest factor, a result not just of the bites that typically start as soon as someone falls asleep, but also from the fear of actually being asleep and falling victim to the insects.

“You try not sleeping for days, weeks, months, years on end,” said the activist. “It doesn’t just make you a bear, it changes your entire personality. You become withdrawn, anti-social, you fly off the handle more easily.”

The process of having a home treated for the insects is stressful in itself, as clothes have to be washed and bagged and furniture and other belongings steamed, before a pest-control worker sprays the apartment once, then again two weeks later.

She said she has seen residents resort to substance abuse, act out with vandalism and, in one case, throw a pet cat off an apartment balcony in frustration at their infestation. Ms. Younger said she is even aware of suicides where the bugs were at least a factor.

“You can walk into the lobby [of an infested building] and the sense of utter despair is palpable.”

Toronto’s Woodgreen Community Services has been working on the problem since 2004, when it first started getting regular calls about bed bugs, and has even produced a manual on how to cope with the pests.

“It is very, very stressful for [bed-bug victims], especially people who have limited resources and who don’t always have a friendly landlord who is going to assist them in dealing with it,” said Brian Smith, the agency’s CEO. “It’s one of those things it’s hard to escape from.”

National Post
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