OCD one of the most common mental disorders in Singapore

SINGAPORE: Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of most common mental health conditions here, according to findings from a nationwide study released on Tuesday (Dec 11).

The disorder affected one in 28 people in their lifetime, making it the third-most prevalent condition after major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse. The illness is commonly characterised by recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images, and when severe, impedes a person’s ability to function.

Younger people aged 18 to 34 were more likely to have the condition than those aged 50 and above, said researchers from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), citing the findings from the second Singapore Mental Health Study.

The study also found that those who had a monthly household income of between S$2,000 and S$3,999 were less likely to have the condition than those with a household income of less than S$2,000.

IMH’s Professor Chong Siow Ann said that one symptom of OCD is the fear of contamination and could manifest in excessive washing. The condition causes “tremendous impairment” to a person’s functioning, he said.

While the term “OCD” is loosely used in Singapore, and some people may even take pride in saying that they have OCD as it denotes a certain discipline, Prof Chong said that the clinical definition of the illness is different.

Such terms being loosely used could sometimes be a problem, said IMH chief executive Chua Hong Choon.

“That relates to the stigma and issue of what we understand of these disorders,” he said.


Associate Professor Mythily Subramaniam also said that the 6,126 participants surveyed were asked if they had had recurring thoughts or concerns about order or symmetry, which is related to OCD.

“It’s a very neglected disorder,” said Assoc Prof Mythily. 

When it starts off, it could be mild, she said, adding that it could get worse over time, interfering with a person’s life. She gave the example of a person who could start off washing his hands more frequently, but who could end up repeating the action so frequently that daily activities are interrupted and he suffers from infections. 

She gave examples of a person showering for two hours or taking an hour to wear shoelaces as signs of a person who has OCD.

Given that it could start off mild, the delay in seeking treatment by those with OCD was the longest among those who sought help for mental disorders.The estimated median number of years it took a sufferer to seek help was 11 years, compared those with other disorders such as alcohol abuse, which took four years.

Prevalence of lifetime OCD and OCD in the most recent one-year period in Singapore was higher than in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.


Overall, one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mood, anxiety or alcohol use disorder in their lifetime, according to the study spearheaded by IMH in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and NTU.

This is a significant increase from 2010, when the study was last done, Assoc Prof Mythily said. The recent one was initiated in 2016 and completed in one-and-a-half years.

The most common condition was major depressive disorder, experienced by 1 in 16 people.

Younger people in the 18 to 34 age group were more likely to have major depressive disorder than those aged 50 and above. Those who were divorced and separated were also more likely to experience the condition in their lifetime.

Alcohol abuse was the next most prevalent, affecting 1 in 24 people.

Other conditions that were surveyed were bipolar disorder and generalised anxiety disorder and alcohol dependence.

The 2016 study found that the majority of people, three-quarters, with a mental disorder in their lifetime, did not seek any professional help. This proportion is similar to the proportion of people who did not seek help in the 2010 study. 

However, those who sought help for their mental illness did so much earlier than what was observed in the last survey, researchers found.