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Coronavirus hand-washing drive a challenge for people with obsessive compulsive disorder

by in Health Tips May 21, 2020

ABC Goulburn Murray / By Erin Somerville
Posted 20 MarMarch 2020

A woman washing her hands.

Excessive hand washing can be a symptom of OCD.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

When it comes to staying away from germs, Chris Parkinson has had a lot of practice.

Key points:
Anxiety ‘quite high’ for OCD patients amid shortages of hand-sanitising products
Chris Parkinson jokes that ‘the whole world’s getting OCD’
Common compulsions and obsessions include washing, cleaning, losing control and harm.
The Melbourne resident has been living with obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD] for almost a decade.

His symptoms came on severely when he was in his early 20s, resulting in him constantly washing his hands, using gloves and hand sanitiser and even throwing out clothing and personal items.

He found it difficult to hold down work and the disorder would also prove expensive as he would have to often replace items he’d thrown away.

Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.
After multiple sessions with The Melbourne Clinic over the years, Mr Parkinson said he was in a good position now to manage his symptoms. But he admitted the outbreak of coronavirus could impact on those with the condition amid a heightened focus on germs, hand washing, social distancing and demand for sanitary products.


“I’ve been having a chat to a fellow OCD sufferer and in a way we were just making a bit of a joke that the whole world’s getting OCD,” he said.

Mr Parkinson might be well versed in washing his hands, but he said it was worrying seeing the demand for sanitising products.

He has been using hand sanitiser for almost a decade as part of his disorder and it’s one item in high demand amid panic buying sweeping Australia.

Restrictions have been placed on the item in some supermarkets and chemists and Mr Parkinson said his friends and family were keeping an eye out for stock for him.

Cognitive behaviour therapy has played a big role in managing the compulsions, like using hand sanitiser, that at times have taken hold of Mr Parkinson’s life and the Melbourne Clinic has helped him work through the exposure and response prevention method to deal with his disorder.

The method sees a person exposed to thoughts, images, objects, and situations that trigger anxiety and obsessions, and allows them to then learn to manage their compulsive behaviours in response.

Mr Parkinson said his work meant he would manage with a shortage of items, like gloves and hand sanitiser but it would be a struggle.

A sign in front of empty shelves at a supermarket

A sign at a Woolworths supermarket in Adelaide warning about a lack of hand washes and sanitiser because of coronavirus demand.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Spence Denny)

“The anxiety would be quite high, but I think where I am in my treatment at the moment I’d be able to cope just by using the normal every day things,” he said.

“But I think things would be harder just by using normal soap and water.”

He said hygiene messaging during the coronavirus outbreak was also tough for those with OCD to effectively manage.

Living with OCD
Obsessive compulsive disorder occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions, according to the International OCD Foundation.

The disorder is diagnosed usually when compulsions and obsessions become so extreme that it affects a person’s important activities and daily life.

Common compulsions can include washing and cleaning, checking and repeating activities, and counting.

Common obsessions include contamination and cleanliness, losing control and harm.

Doctors and OCD foundations have previously highlighted concerns that the phrases “OCD” and “obsessing” are becoming increasingly casualised, which undermines or stigmatises the illness.

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Striking the balance during a pandemic
Over the past week Australians have been targeted as part of a national campaign to inform residents about coronavirus and preventing its spread.

The campaign has a heavy focus on hygiene, particularly handwashing, which has been echoed through other channels such as social media.

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Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Owen Lello said it could be a difficult time for those working to manage their compulsions around hygiene and cleanliness.

“I think they will struggle with this balance to a degree because the messaging is saying frequent hand washing is absolutely necessary,” Dr Lello said.

He said it was important to know when to ask for help.

“If it’s getting to the point where you’re not achieving your task at work or not able to care for yourself at home or undertake your responsibilities, that your life is being really severely impacted, then the line has been crossed between understandable concerns and the impact of the disorder.”

The pandemic is expected to trigger anxiety and mental health issues in some residents, but Dr Lello said it could be a difficult time for people to seek help.

“There’s a battening down the hatches type of attitude, and what we’re really noticing is that people are more stepping back from active therapy at the moment until they see how the situation pans out a little bit,” he said.

Instead, he’d like to see access options, like teleconferencing, to mental health services highlighted to help residents deal with OCD and anxiety that may be triggered by the pandemic.

“If that was made clear then I would expect to see a rise in the amount of people that are seeking mental health support at this time.”

 

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