OCD rates have surged in adults, children during the COVID pandemic — but it’s harder to spot

Mental health experts say there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people presenting and being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder since the beginning of the pandemic.

A psychiatrist and children’s clinical psychologist say the increase has been apparent among both age groups, with COVID exacerbating sufferers’ symptoms and making the condition more difficult to treat.

Psychologist Cassie Lavell, from the Children’s Centre for Anxiety and OCD on the Gold Coast, has observed a nearly 50 per cent increase in patients over three months.

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“We’ve seen a steep increase in enquiries since the first lockdown,” she said.

“It’s not good; kids are waiting longer without treatment and their symptoms getting worse.”

What is OCD?

Ms Lavell said OCD impacts about 2 per cent of the population and is characterised by obsessions and compulsions; with fixations being intrusive or repetitive thoughts “that get stuck in the person’s head and are difficult to let go of”.

She said they are usually quite distressing and range from things like contamination concerns, harm coming to themselves or loved ones, or the need for repetition of certain things.

The compulsions are usually designed to provide relief of those obsessions.

Ms Lavell said some people are diagnosed with “pure O” which is the obsessions without any compulsions.

a woman smiling
Cassie Lavell says there has been an increase in the number of children presenting with OCD during the pandemic.(Supplied: Cassie Lavell)

COVID masking symptoms

Victorian adult psychiatrist Professor Mal Hopwood said the COVID-19 pandemic had significantly impacted the mental health of many people with OCD and taken away common coping mechanisms.

“Issues of routine may be very important in their life, intrusive thoughts related to COVID could disturb their equilibrium and provoke enormous anxiety,” he said.

He said those with the condition risk becoming more withdrawn, anxious and depressed.

“[For] some of them, it’s increasing their intrusive thoughts; for others, it’s the social isolation.”

Woman with short pink hair pours hand sanitizer onto her palm with a smile on her face.
COVID has masked some people’s symptoms, including the use of hand sanitiser and avoiding surfaces.(Supplied)

According to Ms Lavell, the pandemic had made treating OCD more difficult due to it masking some sufferer’s symptoms, including the normalisation of hand sanitiser usage and avoidance of touching surfaces.

“The lines are going a little blurred in terms of what we can do with people in therapy,” she said.

“It’s a bit of a challenge for people with contamination OCD; it’s definitely an extra complication.”

Professor Hopwood said despite access to treatment being made more difficult, he urged people to persist.

“Mental health professionals are only accessible remotely at the minute, so people aren’t finding it easy to access treatment,” he said.

“People are suffering in silence.

“The thing to reinforce is that OCD is very treatable in the vast majority of cases.

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