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Red, itchy, scaly skin: How one woman is trying to erase the stigma of psoriasis

WATCH: Meet Natalie Fletcher, the woman who is using bodypainting to de-stigmatize psoriasis.

Natalie Fletcher, 32, remembers being at the park when she was a kid playing with other children. “Ew, is it contagious?” kids asked her. She was disheartened by the fact that those around her didn’t understand her psoriasis.

READ MORE: Psoriasis drug gets stamp of approval from Health Canada

The Portland, Ore., native was diagnosed with the skin disease when she was two years old. Until this day, she still doesn’t feel completely comfortable in her own skin but has found the courage to speak up.

“It’s still to this day kind of hard to just show it to people, but I think if there are people like me willing to talk about it, then more people will feel more comfortable in their own skin.”

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Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes red, scaly, flaky and sometimes raised itchy plaques on the skin. It’s an inflammatory disease.

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Essentially, your immune system is overactive, triggering an overproduction of cells. Those cells then reach the surface of the skin and die. This creates a buildup, which can appear anywhere on the body.

Patches can be small or very large and sometimes they are found on the scalp, elbows or knees. The exact cause of the condition is unknown.

“Over a million people in Canada are affected by psoriasis to some degree,” Dr. Sam Hanna, a dermatologist in Toronto, said.

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“Even patients with very mild psoriasis are really severely and profoundly affected in their day-to-day life. Certainly, having all eyes on you for reasons that you don’t want, is really challenging. And a lot of my patients report those social pressures and self-esteem issues.”

WATCH: Ask the Doctor: What is psoriasis?

Ask the Doctor: What is psoriasis?
Ask the Doctor: What is psoriasis?

For Fletcher, she’s learned to cope with her psoriasis by getting treatment, and being open about it.

She’s participated in campaigns across the U.S. and the U.K. to raise awareness of the disease. But now, for the first time, she’s taking part in a project to combat the stigma of psoriasis in Canada.

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As part of the project, the professional painter is bodypainting psoriasis on other as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the more than one million Canadians who live with the disease.

READ MORE: Cyndi Lauper opens up about living with psoriasis

She painted a group of dermatologists across the country so they can feel what it’s like to live in their “patients’ shoes.”

“It’s on your skins, it’s on your hands, it’s on your face… there’s no way of hide it. And there is a stigma. It affects people emotionally… with psoriasis it’s hard to cover up.”

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WATCH: Bodypainting to erase the stigma of psoriasis

Bodypainting to erase the stigma of psoriasis
Bodypainting to erase the stigma of psoriasis

Psoriasis has a massive impact on quality of life, according to a new study.

The first-ever report on happiness among people with psoriasis was released by the Happiness Research Institute, an independent think tank, based in Copenhagen.

The study suggests that people living with severe psoriasis in some countries reported 30 per cent lower levels of happiness than people who don’t have the condition. It also found that psoriasis reduces the happiness of women more than men.

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In addition, the report states that loneliness is widespread among people living with the skin condition. Almost 35 per cent of people with the disease reported being lonely.

Researchers surveyed more than 120,000 people with psoriasis across 184 countries.

There are a lot of fears and misconceptions when it comes to psoriasis, says Hanna.

One of the most common is that the condition is something you can “catch,” when, in fact, it isn’t.

“Imagine a child with psoriasis going to the swimming pool, there is that tendency for other parents to sort of say, ‘well what is that, is that a concern to my child?’”

Although Hanna says it’s good for people to ask questions, he often sees people withdrawing from people who suffer.

“We don’t recoil when we see a teenager with acne, we understand that. People have that. And that’s what we want to get to with a disease like psoriasis,” Hanna says.

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READ MORE: Why Canadians with eczema continue to suffer in silence

There is no cure for psoriasis. There are treatments that can help ease the effects. They include creams, ointments, light therapy and injections. Patients can suppress the symptoms and work towards educating those around them about the disease.

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“If friends and new contacts, and work contacts just sort of had some basic level of understanding, this is a thing that poses no risk to them but is a significant burden to the individual, I think this would be a very significant benefit,” Hanna says.

As for Fletcher, she shares the same goal as Hanna. She hopes more people will understand what the skin condition is and perhaps be more accepting of it.

“It would be great to see a cure, but until then what I would really love, is just to see people living and understanding,” Fletcher says.

“I hope people could say ‘I’m sorry that you suffer from that, but I understand but I am still willing to touch you, and I am still willing to be your partner and I am still willing to play games with you as a kid.'”

Follow @emacampanella on Twitter. 

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