Many people we spoke to had alopecia while they were in school, at college or university. They talked about different aspects, such as exam stress being a trigger, wanting to “fit in” with their peers and other people’s knowledge about alopecia.
Some people found that their hair loss had a big emotional impact on them which affected their experiences at school, college and university. Being around peers and meeting new people, including housemates in shared accommodation at university, made some people feel self-conscious. There was a range of experiences which varied over time and often linked to how much knowledge the people around them had about alopecia.
A few people had alopecia when they were in primary school and found other children were “curious” but mostly “accepted” them as they were. Some found it became harder during secondary school and a few had been bullied or had rumours spread about them having cancer. In contrast, lots of the people we talked to found that their peers at university had more knowledge about alopecia but some still worried about ‘fitting in’. You can read more in other sections about the emotional impact of alopecia and on physical appearance.
However, lots of people said they were given good support and remember particular friends or teachers who helped and reassured them.
Stress and upset from school, college and university could be a trigger for some people’s alopecia starting or becoming more extensive. Many people thought the stress of their exams had set off their alopecia. Becky said she’s “not a stressed person” but always seems to lose her hair around times that are supposed to be stressful like exam time. Hair loss could also be a distraction at school. Michael says he often sat at the back of the classroom and didn’t want to go to school because he “didn’t want to be seen”. He remembers a time when one of his eyebrows “fell out” during an exam and onto the page which he says was the “biggest distraction ever”.
Being in school with alopecia
A big concern for many young people was about ‘fitting in’ at school. Some felt wearing a hat, bandana or scarf, or having a bald head, made them stand out. Styling hair to carefully cover patches and wearing a wig or scarf could make it difficult to take part in school activities such as sports, plays and non-uniform days. Not being able to join in with the latest hair styles or having to wear a cap for swimming when no one else did made them feel different to their peers. Annie X found every day a struggle when she was in Year 7 and the beginning of Year 8. She would try and make herself sick on Sundays so that she didn’t have to go into school the next day.
Some people had experienced bullying at school. Other children could be unkind, picking out their differences or spreading rumours about them. Grace knew some children in her school talked about her “behind her back”, saying that she had cancer.
Some people said they were grateful for the support they received from teachers, but others felt more could have been done in their schools to stop bullying.
Returning from school holidays and moving schools
Transition periods and returning after school holidays could be important times. Rosie remembers coming back after the summer holidays when her hair started falling out and thinking it must have been quite a “shock” for everyone to see all her hair had gone. She thought that her class were “really nice about it” and just “curious”.
Some people had moved schools, either because they wanted to or if their family had moved to a new place. Kayla says moving to a new secondary school let her “start afresh”. The transition between primary and secondary school was another period of change that some people spoke about. Many felt there was more focus on looks at secondary school, sixth form and college which could make them worry about their appearance and being judged. Annie X goes to an all-girls secondary school and thinks there’s a lot of emphasis there on hair styling. Ben says he started to care more about his appearance in sixth form and became more interested in having relationships
Starting university could involve meeting lots of people for the first time and could mean increased pressure to socialise. Worrying about the impact of alopecia on appearance and physical comfort could become a constant preoccupation for some people. This includes concerns about how best to style their hair to cover patches and whether to wear a hat or wig to lectures. Some people talked about the time and energy it took trying to get their hair “right” and Emily says she can sometimes “work myself up a little bit about it.” It could also be a practical issue. For example, some people worried that if it was windy on their way to classes their styled hair could become ruffled, revealing bald patches, and wearing a wig in a warm lecture hall or seminar room could be uncomfortable.
For those who wore wigs, living in shared housing or halls of residence could make it more difficult to relax without their wig on, as well as wash and dry their wigs. This was particularly a concern if their housemates did not know about their alopecia.
Many found starting university was a welcome change. Meghan says her school and sixth form had been “cliquey”, but that university was totally different in a good way. Many liked that they had a wider circle of people around them to choose to be friends with. Being amongst people who were a bit older could also mean that people were more understanding and knowledgeable about alopecia. A few people found that their friends and housemates at university had known of a person their age with alopecia before, and so they had some understanding already.