COVID-19 mental health: OCD sufferers talk of unique pandemic challenges

  •  Some people with Harm OCD are obsessively worrying they will hurt someone. 
  • Others with the contamination sub-type are receiving conflicting messages about washing their hands.
  • Experts also worry that people with OCD will struggle to re-assimilate back into society. 

Amid the mental health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, people with OCD are experiencing unique difficulties.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating mental health condition. Obsessions are the unwelcome thoughts that repeatedly appear in the mind, while compulsions are the repetitive activities done to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession.

According to the International OCD Foundation, between two to three million adults in the US currently have OCD and 500,000 children and teenagers. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) called OCD one of the top 10 most disabling illnesses by lost income and quality of life.

When 19-year-old Iowa college student, Shira Folberg, was 16, her OCD led to her medically withdrawing from high school.

She has had issues related to disordered eating, health-related anxiety, and moral scrupulosity, a form of OCD that causes an obsessive concern with whether one is being good or bad.

Folberg told Insider: “When Covid really hit, it was hard for me because I used to have a lot of compulsions where I would obsessively check to see if I had symptoms of different illnesses. 

“So when people first started coming out and saying these are the symptoms you should be watching out for, I would fixate on those things, and it would make me really anxious,” she continued.

“I would spend a lot of time checking to see if I had symptoms even though I would just stay at home all day and didn’t talk to anyone.”

Alison Dotson, President of OCD Twin Cities in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was diagnosed with the condition 15 years ago and has struggled with harm OCD amid COVID-19.

“For me, the fear of harming someone else is something I always worry about but it’s been heightened during the pandemic.”

‘Isolate and avoid people, places and things.’

The pandemic has led to 4 in 10 adults in the US reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression, an increase from the one in ten adults, according to research published by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale, Director of the McLean OCD Institute at Houston, said treating OCD people in the time of COVID was a challenge: “When you’re in the middle of treatment it’s don’t isolate, don’t avoid people, places or things. Well, what’s the world telling you right now? Isolate and avoid people, places, and things.”

Dr. Ken Duckworth, Chief Medical Officer at the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI), told Insider: “We have certainly seen an increase of anxiety disorders at NAMI. There’s also been a big leap in people with germ phobias being provoked by COVID-19.”

Hand-washing to prevent the coronavirus’s spread is particularly tough for suffers from contamination OCD – a sub-type of the condition. After years of being told to stop washing their hands to control their condition, the new message to wash their hands to prevent COVID-19 can be mind-boggling.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

‘It’s a very illogical and irrational disorder’

As vaccination rollouts begin, restrictions are lifted, and the post-pandemic future beckons, experts worry that people with OCD will struggle to re-assimilate back into society. 

Dr. McIngvale said that while life will return to normal for many, OCD sufferers will face many hurdles: “They may still be stuck on worrying about the virus, worrying about another virus and worrying about if it’s actually gone or is if it’s still here.”

Folberg agreed: “It’s a very illogical and irrational disorder, so even if it is safe for people, I know a lot are really going to struggle to transition back to normalcy.”

Dr. Athanasios Hassoulas, Director of MSc Psychiatry at Cardiff University, Wales, has OCD and has written a paper on how people with OCD are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We need to have more support available and tailored approaches to the degree of the severity. We need to concentrate on the psychological impact of the pandemic and not leave it till the last minute,” he said.