Psychologist hopes the pandemic can help reduce the stigma against OCD

TORONTO — Many people have experienced anxiety and excessive cleaning during the pandemic, but for individuals who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), this isn’t anything new.

Many individuals who struggle with this anxiety disorder often have rituals or specific ways of completing a task, usually involving an excessive amount of cleanliness. 

The pandemic has heightened these concerns to the extreme, Karen Rowa, a psychologist and associate professor at McMaster University, told CTV News Channel. 

“For some of these individuals who are suffering (with OCD) they may have taken the recommendations for isolation and quarantine to an extreme, so their anxiety and OCD concerns may have pushed some of those rules where they feel like they don’t even want to go out anymore or touch anything,” she said.

Rowa said common OCD tendencies include extra hand-washing, additional precautions when going outside and lots of sanitizing. 

According to CAMH, one in 40 adult Canadians are diagnosed with OCD, though many Canadians may relate to frequent sanitizing during the pandemic. 

Rowa said it’s unlikely for a person to develop the disorder as a direct result from the pandemic, since it’s often caused by a combination of psychological, biological and genetic factors.

“We’re all at risk for having a lot of anxiety and exhibiting those types of behaviours, but certainly we wouldn’t expect that people would develop OCD simply from the pandemic,” she said. “People who are doing a lot of extra washing and being careful if the pandemic were over, I think they could go back to their normal lives whereas somebody with OCD would continue to struggle.”

While the pandemic has greatly affected some of those living with the disorder, Rowa said some of her clients have found it to be slightly comforting to see others relating to their struggles. 

“I’ve had a number of my clients tell me they feel a small relief that other people in the general population now have to go through significant behaviours that they normally have to go through,” she said. “In some ways, hopefully, this is reducing the stigma in helping people understand what it might feel like to have OCD or significant anxiety at most times.”

Rowa said Canadians need to be more supportive than ever to those who struggle with their mental health. 

“If we want to be extra supportive of individuals whose anxiety and OCD symptoms have skyrocketed, it’s really important to encourage that if they are in therapy or taking medication to continue that and if they’re not, to potentially seek some professional help if the symptoms have gotten to the point where they’re really interfering,” she said.

Rowa is also recommending family and friends to be understanding and encourage individuals not to go overboard with health measures. 

“We always say in therapy support the person, not the OCD, so have a lot of empathy and a lot of patience but also try to encourage the person to only follow the guidelines and not go beyond them, so for example (hand) washing for 20 seconds is very reasonable but washing multiple times for 20 seconds is unnecessary,” Rowa said. 

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