COVID-19 may trigger and worsen obsessive compulsive disorder in children and adolescents, new study finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of all, irrespective of whether you had diagnosed mental health conditions before this or not. Studies published since the beginning of the pandemic show that stress and anxiety levels have increased among people, leading not only to psychological disorders but also to increased risks of substance abuse. Scientists, mental healthcare professionals and organisations across the globe are therefore warning against postponing therapy and treatment even as the pandemic continues to rage because not having your needs met is only likely to increase susceptibilities further.

But while there is currently more research regarding the psychological impact of COVID-19 among adults, studies about the effects of the pandemic on younger populations are scarce. The findings of a new study published in BMC Psychiatry are likely to bridge this gap in knowledge by providing much-needed insight into the impact of the pandemic on the psychological health of children and adolescents.

OCD and COVID-19 trauma among children

The study, conducted by researchers at the Aarhus University and the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Denmark, looked particularly at obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and its onset or worsening among children. The researchers start out by observing that OCD – which is a psychiatric disorder characterized by unwanted thoughts, images or urges, and repetitive behaviours that occur in response to anxiety or unpleasant feelings – is known to have a major impact on the everyday life of children suffering from it.

Childhood trauma can have a lifelong impact on the physical and psychological health of children. Studies also show that there is a strong relationship between childhood traumas and the severity of OCD symptoms, the occurrence of comorbid anxiety, increased impulsiveness, higher incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and low education levels. While the fear, stress, anxiety and trauma associated with COVID-19 infection may not be comparable to the trauma due to childhood sexual abuse, studies have shown that depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), etc may be the psychological consequences of COVID-anxiety. What’s more, children who have already suffered previous traumas might be more susceptible to OCD and other mental health issues triggered by COVID-19 .

Worsening OCD symptoms

To understand if this has truly been the case, the researchers behind this study sent questionnaires in spring 2020 to two groups of children and adolescents between the ages of seven and 21 years. One group of participants consisted of clinical patients newly diagnosed at a specialized OCD clinic, while the other contained participants identified by the Danish OCD Association. All participants were in regular contact with a therapist or doctor and most had received primary psychological treatment.

The researchers found that participants from both groups experienced a worsening of their OCD and the worsened symptoms were more significant in the second group. As their OCD symptoms were aggravated, the anxiety, depression and the extent of avoidance behaviour of the participants also increased. This indicated a vicious circle of aggressive OCD symptoms and worsening of other psychological parameters. This trend was more pronounced in children with early OCD onset and a family history of ADHD.

The study thus concluded that fear, stress and anxiety due to COVID-19 has a huge impact on the OCD incidence and worsening of symptoms. The researchers particularly observed excessive handwashing and disinfection among the children, which clearly correlates to the previous knowledge that OCD patients tend to have higher health anxieties and aversions to bacteria and dirt. The researchers recommend that since the pandemic is far from over, it’s very important for parents and guardians to observe higher frequencies of OCD behaviours in their children and to contact mental healthcare professionals for help before the symptoms get worse or lead to further trauma.

For more information, read our article on Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Health articles in Firstpost are written by, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.