We report on how to spot the signs of obsessive compulsive disorder and how to deal with the problem.
Does your child have OCD?
When was the last time you heard someone mention OCD? Probably when they ran back to check they’d locked the car, while admitting they were being “a bit OCD”. While we all have a tendency to double check things sometimes, obsessive-compulsive disorder is no laughing -matter.
One 13-year-old boy used to experience obsessive thoughts which led him to believe that his brother would be harmed if he didn’t check that the taps were turned off in the bathroom they shared. “This resulted in him compulsively checking the taps for up to three hours a day and being unable to leave the house or go to bed unless he had completed his checking,” explains Clare Smart, a counsellor at LifeWorks Counselling and Development (www.lifeworksdubai.com). “As the OCD took hold, it took him longer and longer to feel that his checks were completed. He also became very anxious if he wasn’t with his brother and sought excessive reassurance from others that his brother was safe.”
For some, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours become so excessive that they interfere with daily life. And no matter what they do, they can’t seem to shake them.
In essence, OCD is a condition made up of thoughts that make you anxious (obsessions) and things you need to do to alleviate the anxiety (compulsions). People with OCD often realise that their thoughts are irrational, but still feel compelled to act on them. OCD frequently begins during adolescence and it is thought that up to three per cent of young people suffer from the disorder.
“Some young people are bothered by upsetting thoughts or pictures that repeatedly come into their mind,” explains Smart. “Whereas other young people with OCD feel like they have to do something over and over again even though they don’t want to and it might not make sense. They may feel very upset or worried until they have done these things.”
Most people in the UAE don’t seek help until they’ve been suffering with OCD for an average of 15 to 20 years, according to Dr Ahmed Alkhalaf, a clinical and health psychologist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi (www.americancenteruae.com). This is often due to a lack of awareness, or a sense of shame. However, it’s important parents seek help quickly if they think their teenager might be suffering, because the earlier the condition is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
What marks behaviour as OCD?
While your teenager’s behaviour might be normal, the length of time it lasts might not. “If your child is performing rituals for more than one hour this might indicate a problem,” advises Smart. Another guide may be how upset your child gets if you try to stop him carrying out the rituals. “If your child seems to be anxious, withdrawn or sad; if they tell you that they are having some upsetting thoughts; or if they seem worried about you or other people – these could also be signs of OCD.”
For one parent, it was obvious their teenager was suffering. “I worked with an 18-year-old who was diagnosed with severe OCD,” says Alkhalaf. “He experienced negative thoughts whenever he saw some dirt on the floor of his home and he believed that there was always a dirty space at home. He took two to three hours to have a shower and a long time to wash his hands. He couldn’t leave his home and even stopped going to school.”
Why do people suffer from it?
Young people who develop OCD often feel responsible for causing or stopping harm happening to themselves or other people, such as their parents. “Bullying, depression and the death of a close friend or family member can increase the chances of developing OCD,” explains Smart. Some experts believe the brain works differently in people with OCD and that certain families are prone to it.
How can parents help?
Mental health problems may carry a stigma in Arab countries but parents should be careful not to blame their teenager for their condition. Try to raise the issue with your child by asking them if they’re worried about anything. “Explain that you think it might be an idea to get professional help and ask if they would be happy to talk to someone. If your teenager seems hesitant, don’t insist, rather let them think about it and ask again in a few days’ time,” advises Alkhalaf.
When to involve the experts?
Sometimes medication is helpful in treating OCD, especially if the anxiety symptoms are very severe. However, research has shown that the most effective treatment for OCD is cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps the person understand how their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are connected. It also involves exposing people to the things they are fearful of.
As a parent, it’s worth noting that OCD is an anxiety disorder and in children, the symptoms of anxiety usually change over time. So a child with OCD symptoms will not necessarily have OCD as an adult. What’s most important, according to the American Center, is to make environmental and behavioural changes to reduce your child’s anxiety.
Common indicators of OCD
Fear of dirt or contamination by germs.
Fear of causing harm to another.
Fear of making a mistake.
Fear of being embarrassed or behaving in a socially unacceptable manner.
Fear of thinking evil or sinful thoughts.
Need for order, symmetry or exactness.
Excessive doubt and the need for constant reassurance.
Being stuck on words, images or thoughts, usually disturbing, that won’t go away and can interfere with sleep.
Washing: repeatedly washing hands, cleaning the house, bathing.
Checking: repeatedly checking to ensure the doors are locked, the cooker is turned off.
Ordering: repeatedly putting things in a particular order or symmetry, putting things in their place, eating foods in a specific order.
Mental rituals: constantly counting, repeating words until everything is OK.
Hoarding: excessive gathering of possessions (and failure to use or discard them), even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary.