Study: OCD in top three mental disorders, sufferers seeking help later

Afraid that someone would break into his house, he would check the locks on his front gate and door.

He was so anxious about making a mistake and letting a burglar slip through that he would repeat this 50 to 60 times.

“He would end up not being able to do anything else because he would be terribly late for appointments.

“It came to a point where he seldom could make it for work,” said senior psychologist at The Therapy Room Lawrence Tan, 40.

He was describing the debilitating effect an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can have on a sufferer.

His comments came in the wake of the latest national mental health study, which showed that OCD remains one of the top three mental illnesses here.

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It affects one in 28 people living here in their lifetime, behind alcohol abuse (one in 24) and depression (one in 16).

Spearheaded by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), the second Singapore Mental Health Study found that in 2016, the median number of years that OCD sufferers delayed treatment was 11 years.

This is up from nine years in 2010 when the first Singapore Mental Health Study was done.

In contrast, findings from the latest study, released yesterday, showed that those with other mental disorders have been seeking help from healthcare professionals, counsellors, even religious and spiritual advisers earlier.

For example, the median number of years that people who abuse alcohol delayed treatment fell from 13 years to four.

Mental health professionals told The New Paper that denial, shame and guilt about their obsessions and illness, as well as the lack of awareness of the symptoms are some reasons why OCD sufferers can take a long time to seek help.


Dr Bhanu Gupta, a senior consultant at IMH’s Department of Mood and Anxiety, told TNP that despite its high prevalence, OCD is poorly understood and public awareness about the signs and symptoms, which can be hard to recognise, is lacking.

“Quite a lot of times, the symptoms are seen as normal behaviour, excessive normal behaviour. So it is understandable that some people don’t seek help early.”

He said that it is common to see patients who have had symptoms for 15 years or longer before they got help, adding: “OCD usually starts quite insidiously… So initially, most people are not affected so much that they think it requires any kind of treatment.”

Driven by anxiety, OCD has two parts – obsessions, which are persistent, recurring and intrusive thoughts that can increase that anxiety, and compulsions, repeated behaviours and rituals that relieve it.

“It becomes a bit of a feedback loop, where because the rituals take away the anxiety, (the sufferer) keeps doing them more and more,” Dr Bhanu said.

Patients are diagnosed with OCD when these obsessions and compulsions start to take up a significant length of time, more than an hour a day, or start to impair one’s day-to-day life, he added.

Medication and therapy help to break the vicious cycle and Dr Bhanu said the earlier OCD is treated, the better.

The latest Singapore Mental Health Study involved interviews with more than 6,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 18 and above.