Understanding OCD is more important during the coronavirus pandemic than ever

Understanding OCD is more important during the coronavirus pandemic than ever

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many people to praise the common but misconstrued understanding of what it means to be OCD. An article published in the Wall Street Journal earlier in the pandemic was entitled, "We all need OCD now". But obsessive-compulsive disorder is not an adjective.

OCD is a potentially devastating neurological condition that affects around 2.3% of the population. It can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from checking to rumination, and contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily about handwashing or liking things in order - although handwashing can be a feature of contamination OCD.

A person washing their hands. Credit: PA Images

Far from being a personality quirk, OCD plagues sufferers with terrifying intrusive thoughts, often about taboo subjects like pedophilia and sex, and they carry out compulsions to relieve themselves of the anxiety the thoughts cause, but it is only ever a temporary solution, which is why sufferers are ten times more likely to take their own lives, per Molecular Psychiatry.

A person with pedophilia-themed OCD, for example, may fear that they will harm a child, and therefore compulsively avoid children - despite there being no reported incidents of a sufferer ever acting on their intrusive thoughts - to rid themselves of this anxiety.

And now that we are living through a situation where people are being encouraged to engage in what are traditionally thought to be OCD behaviors like handwashing, a true understanding of the disorder is more important than ever.

This woman explains why the situation created by the pandemic is so frustrating for OCD sufferers: 

Following governmental advice to wash your hands and practice social distancing is nothing compared to the horror which OCD sufferers face on a daily basis; as OCD advocate Chrissie Hodges noted in the Metro, if we don't "take the opportunity to make a unified stand together in correcting the language used about being 'so OCD' or 'the benefit of OCD behaviors' during this pandemic, we will be left with facing more trivialization of this disorder than we did before."

This comes as a new charity, Orchard OCD, has established itself in the hope of providing effective treatment to those with OCD by crowdfunding a clinical trial of psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

VT recently spoke to the charity's co-founder, Nick Sireau, pictured below, about the launch of the charity's crowdfunder, and other topics including the damaging effects of trivializing what it means to be OCD.

Nick Sireau Credit: Orchard OCD

VT: How has your own experience of OCD influenced your advocacy?

"OCD is a devastating mental disorder. I first developed symptoms when I was 17 and spent 10 years [suffering] before I had a diagnosis. In fact, I self-diagnosed after reading a book about it and going to see my GP, who agreed with the diagnosis. I then spent years trying to access treatment, having different forms of psychological treatment (especially cognitive behavioral therapy) and going on different medications. The OCD then triggered a deep depression, which proved debilitating. An old anti-depressant called clomipramine helped with the depression but not with the OCD. That's why I became an advocate for new treatments for OCD as many of us OCD sufferers do not respond to existing treatments."

"I first developed symptoms when I was 17 and spent 10 years before I had a diagnosis."

A person taking medication. Credit: Pexels

VT: Magic mushrooms have previously been taken by OCD sufferers before because of the alleged benefits of psilocybin, have you personally experienced it?

"I have never taken magic mushrooms to treat my OCD, although I heard anecdotally from people who have used this successfully. Furthermore, a small study in 2006 by the University of Arizona showed that psilocybin could help with OCD symptoms. As a charity, we are not encouraging OCD patients to go out and try magic mushrooms. Instead, we are funding a scientific feasibility study to see whether psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms - can help with OCD at a low dose.

"The study will have approval from an ethics committee, the UK Home Office and the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The psilocybin will be produced to pharmaceutical and clinical standards by a pharmaceutical company. The problem with just taking magic mushrooms is that patients have no idea what strength or dose they are taking and won't have the therapeutic support to help them reap the most benefit."

"The problem with just taking magic mushrooms is that patients have no idea what strength or dose they are taking and won't have the therapeutic support to help them reap the most benefit."

Mushrooms. Credit: Pexels

VT: What do you think the current recommended OCD treatments - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and exposure-response therapy (ERP) - lack?

"SSRI anti-depressant medications work for some people. I run an OCD support group where I live and I come across patients for whom SSRIs have helped reduce their OCD symptoms. But for 40% of patients, SSRIs don't work, and nobody really knows why. Exposure-response therapy is the standard psychological treatment for OCD. It involves gradually exposing the OCD patient to their obsessions in order to reduce the anxiety and compulsions carried out. Again, this works very well for some people. But for others - such as myself - it does nothing. That's why we need new treatments."

"Exposure-response therapy (ERP) is the standard psychological treatment for OCD. This works very well for some people. But for others - such as myself - it does nothing."

VT: Healthcare systems around the world are notoriously underfunded when it comes to OCD treatment. Do you envisage this changing?

"OCD is trivialized and misunderstood in the media and even among the medical profession. Most people believe OCD is just a quirk - 'being a bit OCD' if you line your pencils or tidy your room. A report by the mental health charity MQ on the mental health research funding landscape in the UK from 2014-2017 showed that funding for OCD research is right at the bottom of the mental health list - below depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and eating disorders. Just 89p is spent each year per OCD patient in the UK on research into OCD. This will only improve if we carry out a sustained campaign to change everyone's view of OCD and reveal just how debilitating it can be."

"OCD is trivialized and misunderstood in the media and even among the medical profession. Most people believe OCD is just a quirk."

Pictured below is neuropharmacologist Professor David Nutt, who will conduct the clinical trial of psilocybin.

Professor David Nutt. Credit: Orchard OCD

VT: Do you think that a "cure" for OCD, in the traditional sense of the word, could ever be found?

"I doubt a complete cure for everyone with OCD will ever be found. It's not like a monogenic disease (such as the rare disease Alkaptonuria, which affects my two sons) where you can carry out research into gene therapy to cure the defective gene. OCD is multi-faceted and has many genetic, environmental, neurological, biochemical, and other causes. That's why we set up Orchard: to accelerate the development of many new and better treatments for OCD. We are starting with psilocybin and we will then go on to work on other potential treatments."

"OCD is multi-faceted and has many genetic, environmental, neurological, biochemical, and other causes."

VT: Was the campaign's launch during a pandemic that has caused people to use OCD as an adjective a total coincidence?

"Yes, we have been planning this campaign for more than a year. When the COVID pandemic started, we thought fundraising for OCD would be very difficult. In reality, we've found that people are still very interested in supporting non-COVID causes, which is good."

A person using handgel. Credit: PA Images

VT: Donations aside, how else can people help Orchard OCD?

"People can help Orchard OCD by spreading the message that OCD is a serious mental health disorder that urgently needs new and better treatments."

VT: It's currently Mental Health Awareness Week, what would you like people to know, in particular, about OCD?

"I would like everyone to understand that OCD is not a personality quirk but a debilitating mental illness that can ruin people's lives. One in seven OCD patients will attempt suicide at some point. This is unacceptable. So please support our crowdfunding campaign at https://www.chuffed.org/project/orchardocd."

Sireau's insights are a reflection of the many barriers OCD sufferers face, which could become even greater if people are not careful about their use of language during the pandemic and inadvertently create even more trivialization of the disorder than there was before COVID-19.

The condition is so misunderstood that, like Sireau, many people go years living with intrusive thoughts that convince them they are monsters before they make the discovery that they are suffering from a mental illness. After all, there is a big difference between fearing that you're a pedophile and liking your house clean.

A person carrying out research. Credit: Pexels

OCD UK issued the following advice to anyone who fears that the current crisis could cause them to develop the condition, writing on their website: "For people, without OCD much of these worries [caused by the pandemic] will be fleeting and will certainly pass once the present public health crisis passes."

"Likewise, the extra hand washing is not worry driven, people are simply following recommended advice, even if it is slightly anxiety-provoking.

Try to remember it's perfectly normal for people to wash their hands to minimize the risk of a highly contagious virus, it is a normal rational response to a genuine and significant threat."

This is why, out of respect to those whose lives are blighted by the condition, the phrase "I'm so OCD" should be removed from common usage, especially during a pandemic which has the potential to cripple those with contamination-based fears.

If you or someone you know believes that they could have OCD, support can be found through various charities including OCD Action and OCD Gamechangers.