Now wash your hands… again: why coronavirus is different when you have obsessive compulsive disorder

When it comes to the threat of coronavirus, the British are supposedly among the most relaxed people in the world, and the least likely to take precautions, according to new research last week. Just five per cent in this country said they were “very scared” by the illness, a YouGov survey found.

But if the majority of the population is (so far) keeping calm and carrying on, not everyone is able to remain so tranquil about the impending doom we keep hearing about. For those who already suffer from mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the perceived panic surrounding the global spread of the virus is far harder to deal with serenely.

When Telegraph columnist and mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon posted a message on Twitter last week to ask “how many people with contamination OCD are suffering miserably at the moment?” the replies were revealing.

“The whole Coronavirus thing is really triggering,” wrote Rachel Allen, while Julia Bladen-Blake replied: “It’s really taking a lot in me not to succumb to old health anxiety habits that I had to go to therapy for.” A third woman, Jacqueline Strawbridge, said it was “off the scale, just like when those terrifying AIDS adverts came out in the 80s, this is a nightmare for people with OCD.”

At the most severe end of the scale, and illustrating the effect the coronavirus situation is having not only on adults but also on young children with mental health conditions, was the daughter of a woman called Jo who, she says, is “suffering terribly with this. 11 years old and feels like she’s going to die if she touches anything. Doesn’t want to go to school. Terrified from what she picks up on the media.”

OCD, a potentially debilitating condition characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, affects 1.2 per cent of the UK population, according to the charity Rethink Mental Illness. But a far larger proportion is affected by a variety of anxiety disorders. The NHS says generalised anxiety disorder is estimated to affect up to five per cent of the UK population, while one in six people in the UK will experience a common mental health issue every year.

Many of these will experience fears around matters other than germs, contamination and illness. But for some of those who find it difficult to control their worries around these areas, the rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis is triggering unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours. About 50 per cent of people with OCD have “a fear of contamination from dirt or disease that causes them to wash and clean compulsively,” wrote David A. Clark, a clinical psychologist at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, in an article last week.