As Megan George was cleaning her seven-year-old daughter Isla’s bedroom last year, she made a horrifying discovery. Hidden around the room – behind beds, under pillows, in drawers and even stuck to the wall – were chunks of long blonde hair.
"It was horrendous," says George, 28, a catering assistant who lives in Norfolk with partner Shaney, as well as little Isla.
"She had been pulling her hair out and hiding it away and I had absolutely no idea why. I’d noticed her doing it in the bathroom too. Sometimes she’d spend up to an hour in there and I’d go in and find hair all over the floor.
"It was so upsetting for all the family. I would beg her to stop, her head was almost completely bald at one point but often she said she didn’t even know why she was doing it.
"As a last resort, I told her that if she really had to do it, then she could do it in front of me and that seemed to help her stop a little. But I was at my wits' end with worry."
Isla, now eight, is suffering from a condition called trichotillomania – also known as trich – when someone cannot resist the urge to pull out their hair. Although more common in teenagers and young adults, children can also suffer from it.
Read more: What trichotillomania feels like to me
"Trichotillomania is part of an umbrella of anxiety disorders, often caused by an initial anxiety and is thought to be a self-sooth response or a stress response which then becomes habitual," says child psychologist Dr Melanie Smart.
"It’s not unusual for children this young to suffer from it. Treatment can include reversal therapy (which aims to break the habit with behavioural modifications) but it’s also important to treat the anxiety itself, otherwise the problem can persist."
Perhaps understandably, Isla’s hair pulling began last April during the start of the pandemic.
"I’m 100% convinced that lockdown was to blame," says George.
"It started just before her 7th birthday and she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to see her friends or family and that we’d had to cancel our holiday.
"The change was all too much for her and she kept asking: ‘Why can’t I see my family?’"
"I noticed that she was pulling at the hairs on her legs and arms, and I kept telling her to stop but she would say they were ‘itchy’," continues George.
"I thought it had something to do with the fact that she broke her leg when she was two and the hairs on that leg felt different somehow. But she kept doing it and by August, she had started pulling at her eyebrows, then by November, she’d moved to the hair on her head.
‘It was distressing for all of us. I’ve never seen my dad – Isla’s grandfather – cry before, but this really upset us all.
"By Christmas, she only had around 20% of the hair on her head.
"Whenever I asked why she was doing it, she would tell me that she didn’t know. Sometimes she said she liked the feeling of it, but other times she admitted she didn’t know why she did it."
Watch: I finally had my trichotillomania under control before the pandemic—but now I'm struggling
George discussed the problem with her GP who referred Isla to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, where she was told that there was nothing wrong with her daughter.
"I couldn’t believe that they could tell me that there was nothing wrong when she was standing there with hardly any hair on her head," says George.
"I believe that Isla has undiagnosed autism and ADHD as well and she needs help. She’s even expressed suicidal thoughts and yet they still won’t help her.
"Her school keep excluding her and I’ve tried fighting the decisions but it gets to the point where I’m simply exhausted. We’ve now been put on yet another waiting list.
"The reactions we get from other people have been hard. Some people think she has cancer and that really hurts. Other people have accused me of shaving her head or doing this to her myself, which is horrible and I get lots of dirty looks."
Late last year, George contacted a woman who suffered from the same condition on Instagram. She directed her to the charity The Little Princess Trust, which provides wigs for children who have lost their hair.
"I’d heard of them but I thought that they only provided wigs for children with cancer," says George.
"But I got in touch with them and they were absolutely fantastic. When they said we could have a wig for Isla and they sent it to her within ten days. I cried when it arrived as I knew what a difference it would make.
"Although she doesn’t wear it all the time, when she does, you can see she turns into a really powerful, confident little girl. I can put it up in a ponytail or curl it or straighten it. She likes it when I do it in big Mermaid style curls."
George and Isla have now started a Facebook page, hoping to increase awareness of the condition and raise money for other children around the world who suffer from it.
"`It was Isla’s idea to share her story and at first I was really nervous," says George. "But once she had her wig she was so much more confident and said: ‘Let’s do it to try and help other people like me’. I have to admit, I blubbed like a baby when she said that.
"Now the story is out there ,we get messages from parents all over the world asking us for advice. We hope that by sharing her story, other people will realise they’re not alone."
Watch: Skin picking and hair pulling need to be part of the mental health conversation too