Public entomologists struggle with an epidemic of delusional parasitosis

Dr Gale Ridge is a public entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, where an average of 23 people a day call, write or visit; an increasing proportion of them aren't inquiring about actual insects, they're suffering from delusional parasitosis, and they're desperate and even suicidal.

Nancy Hinkle, a colleague of Gale's, professor of veterinary entomology at the University of Georgia in Athens, estimates that she spends "a couple of hours every day" dealing with "the invisible bugs."

The entomologists' jobs are confounded by the possibility that the weird "bugs" aren't delusional. The world of arthropods is sufficiently weird that it's hard to rule out a rare or unknown bug causing mischief; not to mention the complications of industrial de-humidifiers that make "the room buzz with static electricity" that feels like bugs crawling on your skin. Then there are the well-meaning MDs who mistake their patients' scratch-marks for bug bites.

The entomologists have learned to stage interventions with their "clients'" families, bringing them together to explain the realities of insect behavior, to bring them to the gradual understanding that their problems are real, but the bugs are not.

Not addressed in the story, but very interesting: why the sharp increase in delusional parasitosis? Is it a reduction in the public health services that would have intercepted these people before they got to the entomologists? Is it scare-stories about bedbugs and lyme disease? Aggressive hand-sanitizer ads with their subtext of lurking, dangerous dirtiness?

It sometimes takes her months to win clients’ trust. At first, they argue, citing websites like stopskinmites.com as proof of their infestation, and Ridge needs to counteract the misinformation they have found there. “This is a piece of lint,” Ridge told me, pointing to a photo that the website suggested was a mite. She sees these sites as a ruse to get people to buy pseudo-medical products, and as a danger to her clients.

“Often in the early stages there’s lot of pushback,” she said, “but they keep coming back, which means they have — deep down — doubt. I keep reassuring them: I’m not judging them.”

She can be maternal, careful to validate what her clients are feeling, becoming stern when she needs to. She sometimes organizes family interventions in a conference room at the Experiment Station, with as many as 11 relatives around a table, trying to address the problem together. She likes “the satisfaction of seeing someone healed.”

“I can help those cases when they have not been invested more than six months, and when they have support from loved ones or friends,” she said. “Those that have become isolated, and have developed habits of self-treatment are very hard to pull back from the brink.”

They don’t often open up at first. As the relationship develops, though, they begin to confide in Ridge. And there is usually something to confide, some emotional upheaval in the background: a divorce, a stressful move, the loss of a loved one. She saw an uptick in these cases right after the 2008 recession. After the physician-researcher’s death, she found out that his family had left him. The separation had happened right around the time of his first bites.

Accidental therapists: For insect detectives, the trickiest cases involve the bugs that aren’t really there [Eric Boodman/Stat News]

(Image: Kayana Szymczak)

(via The Browser)

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  1. Kimmo says:

    Meth?

  2. If the person has had bed bugs, this is some post-traumatic stress (low level, but still...). We had bedbugs for 7 months when we lived in the Bronx. We got rid of them over and over again, and they kept coming back*. We moved out, and threw out almost everything we owned (it was time to get rid of that IKEA bullshit and grow up anyway) We looked back at the bedbug registry a year or so after we moved out, and 3 or 4 apartments in a cluster, including the one we had vacated, were reportedly infested. That was 10 years ago. To this day, every even remotely round speck of anything tan to black in my bedroom makes me jitter for a good hour, and I have a haunting feeling that lurks in the back of my head that every day I spend in a Brooklyn apartment is a roll of the dice.

    My wife has a friend who had bedbugs last year. She sent my wife pictures every couple of weeks of pieces of lint, asking her if she thinks it's bedbugs. My wife had nightmares about home invasion every night while we had the bugs, and for a while after. I'm no evo-pysch guy, but for whatever reason, arthropod fear is deeply wired. Those motherfuckers will fuck with your mind.

    *turned out a neighbor downstairs was the epicenter, and was just spraying their bed with RAID before bed, and ignoring the problem.

  3. Yeah, there was this woman I knew named Ellen who was obsessed with parasitic bugs. She even destroyed an entire cargo vessel because she claimed that it was infested by them. She claims one of her coworkers picked them up in an abandoned ship, but it's probably nonsense. Still, Carter Burke is going to send a group out to investigate the supposed location.

  4. Somehow I am constantly getting involved in the deep weird stuff; I swear my life is a badly scripted soap opera.

    I've never personally had delusional parasitosis, nor its close cousin delusional cleptoparasitosis. Unfortunately, an acquaintance is currently suffering from the latter, and he is rapidly cascading towards the self-harm stage.

    We're guessing his house had a flea or bedbug infestation during the final stages of his wife's terrible and lingering death, and that provided the trigger. (Multiple exterminators have since taken care of whatever it was.) Because he is brilliant, financially well off, and skilled in use of weapons, forcible intervention is impossible. The police would certainly murder him (and he'd take down a couple squads of them, too) if they became involved, because like nearly every self-actualized human being, he's dangerous. If not attacked, he's only dangerous to himself, but that danger is rapidly increasing.

    Long term abuse of methamphetamine, cocaine or similar drugs can cause this syndrome. So, unsurprisingly, if you have it, law enforcement will assume you are a criminal untermensch. It can also be caused by emotional trauma involving a loved one.

    Yes. I believe there is heritable deep physical programming in normal human beings that is specifically there because it granted to survival advantages to our ancestors, and it's integrated into our social consciousness, too. Once this system is overstimulated, it's difficult to put it back to sleep.

    Yes, absolutely correct. This is a contagious mental illness. People suffering from it can infect others. The acquaintance I mentioned earlier has infected people who worked closely with him and is currently working exclusively from home in order to prevent further spread. (Of course, from his own perspective, he's not spreading an illness, instead he believes he is carrying insect eggs from his home into other people's spaces.)

    This is a critically important point. The physical sensations the sufferer is undergoing are real, not at all imaginary. It's just that they aren't being generated by bugs. So telling a victim their real physical sensations are not real, as many people will try to do, simply discredits you and makes it harder for you to help.

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