The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as one of the top ten most disabling illnesses. According to Yvonne Uwamahoro, a counsellor at Mental Health Hub, Kicukiro, OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and ritualised, repetitive behaviour you feel compelled to perform. If you have OCD, you probably recognise that your obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour are irrational but even so, you feel unable to resist them and break free, she says. Causes and risk factors Uwamahoro says that genetic factors could be the cause as genes may play a role in OCD for some. OCD tends to run in families. Having a relative with OCD increases the risk of having it. “OCD often occurs in people who have other mental health illnesses. This can include, anxiety disorders, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and substance abuse,” the counsellor notes. She explains that pregnancy and postpartum period can lead to OCD, this is because hormones can trigger symptoms. OCD symptoms may worsen with pregnancy. OCD after giving birth can include intense worry over the baby’s well-being. An example of common obsessions is fear of germs or dirt. Photo: Net Uwamahoro says OCD is most common in older teens or young adults. It can begin as early as pre-school age and as late as age 40. Stress can make OCD symptoms appear. It is often linked to major life changes, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, relationship issues, problems in school, or abuse, period of uncertainty, and pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having OCD means having obsessions, compulsions, or both. Examples of obsessive or compulsive behaviours include, unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images that occur over and over and which cause anxiety or distress. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) states that the symptoms may come and go, ease over time, or worsen. People with OCD may try to help themselves by avoiding situations that trigger their obsessions, or they may use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves. “Although most adults with OCD recognise that what they are doing doesn’t make sense, some adults and most children may not realise that their behaviour is out of the ordinary. Parents or teachers typically recognise OCD symptoms in children,” Uwamahoro says. She adds that teenagers and young adults with a mental health background in their families, or are living in a stressful environment, are at risk. Complications Uwamahoro says that OCD can affect one’s relationship with others, work or school effort, and general wellness. For example, poor concentration is common, usually as a result of being distracted by upsetting and intrusive thoughts (obsessions). One can fail to do their tasks because they are dealing with non-stop thoughts, Uwamahoro adds. OCD can also cause a child to become avoidant of situations that may provoke intrusive thoughts; for example, avoiding areas that they believe to be contaminated, like school toilets. The mental health counsellor highlights that young people who fear being poisoned may avoid any contact with science laboratories given the potential for chemicals to be nearby. In severe cases, a person with OCD may struggle to leave the house and may be unable to attend school altogether or interact with others freely. Prevention and treatment Mental health experts say that if you think you have OCD, see a Doctor, a psychiatrist, or mental health professional. The diagnosis process will likely include a physical exam to see if your symptoms are due to a health condition. Blood tests to check your blood count, how well your thyroid works, and any drugs or alcohol in your system. A psychological test or evaluation about your feelings, fears, obsessions, compulsions, and actions, can also be done. Uwamahoro points out that OCD usually doesn’t happen all at once. Symptoms start small, and to someone, they can seem to be normal behaviours. They can be triggered by a personal crisis, abuse, or something negative that affects one a lot, like the death of a loved one. It’s more likely if people in one’s family have OCD or another mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety. She adds that examples of common obsessions often have a theme, such as, fear of germs or dirt, fear to touch things other people have touched, like doorknobs. Or fear to hug or shake hands with others. Or, one may feel stressed when objects are out of place, one may find it hard to leave home until they’ve arranged things in a certain way, they may also have excessive doubt or fear of making a mistake. They may check repeatedly to make sure kitchen appliances are turned off or if doors are locked. The International OCD Foundation states that OCD treatment can be difficult, and requires a lot of courage and determination. Having a support network to talk to during treatment can make all the difference, which is why accessing a support group in your area is necessary. “Treatment for most OCD patients should involve Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and medication. About seven out of ten people with OCD will benefit from either medication or ERP,” The International OCD Foundation states.