OCD: Heightened fears during the pandemic

“For so many people with OCD, who already live with a heightened sense of responsibility for others, to now be told by world leaders that what was once an irrational fear is now very real, could be devastatingly triggering.” Olivia Bamber, Communications Manager at OCD Action, discusses the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic brings to those struggling with the mental health condition and the dangers of the misconception of OCD in mainstream media. 

Olivia Bamber

The Covid-19 pandemic has created panic, uncertainty and tragedy across the world. This is a scary and uncertain time for everyone, but it could be particularly challenging for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, in particular Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as there are constant triggers and reminders from all media platforms to carry out behaviours to keep ourselves and others safe – something that will be all too familiar for many people living with OCD.

OCD is defined by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that cause anxiety.

In order to try and alleviate that anxiety, people with OCD will carry out compulsions, which are mental or physical behaviours. Although compulsions may temporarily relieve anxiety, they ultimately reinforce the original obsession and cause a vicious cycle to occur, which can become extremely time-consuming and distressing. 

Common obsessions include (but are not limited to) fears of coming to harm or causing harm to others, fears of becoming ill or making other people ill, sexual thoughts such as the fear of being a paedophile or acting sexually inappropriately, religious or blasphemous thoughts or worries about your sexual identity. Common compulsions include reassurance-seeking, avoidance, rumination, washing, counting or tapping and checking. It is estimated that OCD affects between 1-2 per cent of the population.

The government's social distancing requirements and other hygiene guidelines during the pandemic could be anxiety-provoking for anyone, but for so many people with OCD who already live with a heightened sense of responsibility for others, to now be told by world leaders that what was once an irrational fear is now very real, could be devastatingly triggering.

These fears are also coupled with potential further difficulties of accessing treatment, treatment being put on hold or transferring to Skype/phone, and the potential feelings of isolation and being away from support networks. 

OCD Action has therefore unsurprisingly seen a large increase in support requests from people with OCD and related conditions (Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trichotillomania and Compulsive Skin Picking) and their friends and family.

We have also experienced an increase in media requests, which we largely appreciate and regard as a positive step forward as OCD is becoming more widely recognised. Although the majority are striving to raise awareness, we have noted occasions where OCD has been further trivialised in the media. 

It is not uncommon to hear OCD being used as an adjective to describe someone who finds pleasure in cleaning and organisation, but for those living with the condition, this could not be further from the truth. Although, as described above, OCD can manifest in fears of germs and contamination leading to washing and cleaning rituals, this is not a symptom for a large proportion of people with OCD, and for those who do experience these symptoms, it will be far from enjoyable and in fact quite the opposite – anxiety-provoking, distressing and time-consuming. 

Some media platforms have taken this opportunity to further stigmatise OCD, with some going as far as saying that ‘OCD would be helpful’ during this pandemic in order to keep safe. It’s an incredibly challenging time for those with the condition, without further misunderstanding being spread. It’s important that we and others challenge these misconceptions and raise awareness about the real OCD so those affected feel understood and safe speaking out and seeking the help they deserve. 

The OCD Action support services are running as usual, with increased helpline hours, Skype/phone support groups doubling in frequency and our forums and youth helpline operating as normal, largely down to the support and dedication of volunteers.

This is a difficult time for all charities, especially ones like OCD Action where services are in such high demand because so many of our service users are directly impacted by Covid-19. The demand for services also means that the furlough scheme does not offer a viable solution to protect the organisation and we can not guarantee we will receive income from the government grants scheme. 

With community fundraising also largely on hold, it is a challenging time for the organisation and we are relying on the good will and dedication of our volunteers to ensure we can continue to run our much needed services. While we know this is a difficult time for all, and we value the support that is in place, we do need more action to be taken to preserve the vital services we and many like us provide.

You can find out more about OCD Action on their website or ring their helpline 0845 390 6232  for support.