Children and young people with obsessive thoughts and compulsions may experience their OCD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms worsen during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.
While previous research had shown that trauma and stress can trigger or worsen obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, the current study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, assessed how children and young people with the condition experience the ongoing pandemic.
In the study, scientists, including those from Aarhus University in Denmark, sent a questionnaire to two groups of children and young people between the ages of seven and 21.
They said one group had been diagnosed with OCD in a specialised section at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — and all had been in contact with a therapist at the hospital.
The other group consisted mostly of children and young people who had been diagnosed years ago, identified through the Danish OCD Association.
According to the study, a total of 102 children responded to the questionnaire.
“Their experience was that their OCD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms worsened during a crisis like COVID-19. This worsening was most pronounced for the group identified through the OCD Association,” said Per Hove Thomsen, study co-author from Aarhus University.
Nearly half of the children and young people who belonged to the first group reported that their symptoms had become worse, while a third of them replied that their anxiety had worsened, the study noted.
The scientists said a third of the participants reported a worsening of their depressive symptoms.
And of these, they said almost a fifth experienced that both symptoms had become worse.
In the other group, the researchers said, 73 per cent reported that their condition had worsened, just over half that their anxiety had worsened, and 43 per cent answered that the depressive symptoms had increased.
“The disorder is particularly interesting to study in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, because OCD is a disorder with many different clinical expressions, including, not least, health anxiety, fear of bacteria and dirt, and excessive hand washing/use of disinfection,” said Judith Nissen, a co-author of the study.
“It’s therefore important to examine how such a significant crisis can affect the expression, frequency, and progression of the disorder,” she added.
According to the study, the participants in the questionnaire who had described thoughts and anxiety over how something serious could happen — such as worrying that they may lose family members — experienced the most significant worsening of their symptoms.
In particular, the scientists said children who had begun suffering from OCD at an early age experienced the most pronounced worsening.
“For children who are already anxious about loss, the daily descriptions in the media of illness and death and recommendations about isolation and focus on infection can exacerbate these anxious thoughts, perhaps also especially for the youngest children,” Nissen said.
She believes these children may have greater difficulty understanding the significance of the infection, and are also very dependent on parents and grandparents, and thus most vulnerable to loss.
However, the researchers said the study could not find any correlation with anxiety about infection and impulsive hand washing.
The findings, according to the scientists, indicates that children and young people with OCD may be vulnerable in relation to a crisis such as COVID-19, where anxiety about something serious happening characterises a particularly vulnerable group.
“This may be related to both the direct threat of the infection and to the consequences of having to maintain social distancing, social isolation and the significant level of focus on hygiene,” Nissen said.
“The crisis is not over yet, and it’s therefore very important that we continue to focus on vulnerable children and young people in the future,” she added.
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