Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one of the most common mental health issues faced by Singaporeans, according to a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health in 2010. In fact, one in 33 Singaporeans are affected by OCD in their lifetime. People with OCD tend to fear contamination and diseases. They also suffer from irrational fears and feel a need for routines, symmetry and patterns.
Unfortunately, OCD is often dismissed as a personality quirk when, in fact, it is a severely debilitating illness, marked by obsessions – unwanted, persistent urges that trigger intense distress. Dr Jeanie Chu, Clinical Psychologist at The Resilienz Clinic, adds that it’s especially important to realise that obsessions aren’t always physical, such as cleaning rituals or setting things in perfect order. Instead, they can be “thoughts zipping through the mind, which we cannot see”.
OCD causes the mind to revolve around certain themes, with the dread of contamination and disease taking top spot. Irrational fears of harm – “did I switch the stove off?” – are another. An urgent need for symmetry and patterns is famously documented in the life of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who uses repetitive visuals to “obliterate” the hallucinations in her head.
When does a seemingly innocent habit of double checking things (did you send that text to the right person?) become an indicator of OCD? Frances Yeo, Consultant Psychologist at Thomson Medical Centre says the difference is that with normal day-to-day habits, “…people do not feel anxious once they’re completed. Compulsions, however, are repetitive behaviours that arise to get rid of said obsessions or to reduce anxiety.”
For 10 years, starting in her late 20s, Charlotte* refrained from going out whenever possible. Each time she left the house, she would feel “contaminated” and the need to wipe down the house on her return. This would take at least seven hours. Her family would obey her OCD requests – walking where she said they could, or washing their hair at her request. But says Dr Jeanie, “People don’t realise that engaging in compulsive actions on behalf of the sufferers creates a co-dependent relationship, which fuels the obsessive compulsive disorder.”
Charlotte had to take baby steps to conquer OCD. She practised leaving the house or going out with her mother, and while she sometimes still feels “dirty” from being outside, she also feels empowered. She now works part-time at a jewellery shop and volunteers as a Peer Support Specialist at IMH.
If you suspect a friend could be suffering, here are a few things you can do: Listen closely to their feelings and try not to give solutions. Instead gently advise them to get help early, and be supportive. Check in on them when possible, to see how they are coping.
These helplines are available in Singapore:
- Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-221-4444
- Silver Ribbon: 63861928, 67424190, 63853714