What my maddening itch taught me

What my maddening itch taught me

We need to talk about the broken link between physical and mental health care.

Hello hello. I am back with a new instalment of my favourite section of this newsletter. I call it Voices of Sanity. This is where you, my readers, get to share your stories and wisdom with our community across the world. I am thrilled and honoured that today's voice of Sanity is Suvrita, a psychologist, trainer, and consultant working in mental health, gender and sexuality, and health tech. Suvrita has written a deeply personal and compellingly researched piece on an urgent subject that is shrouded in stigma and silence. I'll let you discover it for yourself. Do share it liberally. Thanks so much Suvrita for doing this.

Also a note that Sanity's new season starts next week, and the theme for it is – drumrolls – parenting in 2023.

And finally, if my work has meant anything to you, please support me by choosing one of the options below. Sanity is fully funded by readers, and I cannot sustain this without you in my corner.

Thank you – Tanmoy.

In August 2017, I started getting a sudden, mind-numbing itch all over my body that made it difficult for me to think, speak, or even move. I saw five dermatologists, all of whom insisted that it was urticaria (commonly known as hives). They prescribed heavy medication, but nothing helped. The mystery continued till one dermatologist took my mental health history and concluded that the ‘itch’ was a stress response to recent changes in my life rather than having a physical cause. Since then, I have had multiple maddening attacks of the itch, each without any underlying physical malady.

I am not alone. Chronic mental health conditions can have strange physical manifestations that drive you up the wall. This article is the outcome of a conversation I had with Tanmoy, where he mentioned his own encounter with a foot itch that no doctor was able to satisfactorily diagnose, until one dermatologist suspected it was ‘psychogenic’. (Note from Tanmoy: The darned thing occupies the size of a one rupee coin under the little toe of my left foot. My skin is perfectly healthy. And yet the itch is so unbearable that once I scooped out the skin and flesh in the area with a nail file.)

For writer and editor Yamini Vijayan, it was an inexplicable pain in the vagina. “It took me months to accept that this was an anxiety disorder,” she writes. “And even then, I would worry that it was some sort of physical medical condition, especially because of the discomfort in my vagina. Should I see my gynaecologist again? Should I consult a urologist? Could it be uterine cancer? It didn’t take much for me to slip into this spiral. I wrestled with the idea that anxiety could be so physical.”

Taken together, these stories of suffering reveal a much larger, silent crisis: the broken relationship between mental and physical health care, and its harmful impact on patients, their families, and even doctors.

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