COVID-19 is making symptoms of OCD, anxiety worse in children and young adults

AARHUS, Denmark — For children dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety, the world can be very difficult to navigate. Researchers in Denmark say the coronavirus pandemic is only making obstacles these young people face even more challenging. Their study finds the majority of children and young adults diagnosed with these conditions are suffering worse symptoms during COVID-19.

A team from Aarhus University says children with OCD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms are seeing a downturn in their condition as the health crisis continues. While studies have revealed adults face mental health struggles during quarantine, researchers say little work has been done with children.

The study examined answers from questionnaires given to two groups of children and young adults between seven and 21 years-old. One group had been diagnosed with OCD at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Each of these patients had been in contact with a therapist within the hospital. The other group was contacted by the Danish OCD Association and had been diagnosed with OCD years before the study.

“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,” says lead researcher Per Hove Thomsen in a university release.

OCD symptoms cropping up in children in different ways

Of the 102 children surveyed, nearly half of the first group report their symptoms have gotten worse during the pandemic. One third said their anxiety has increased while another third reported their depression worsened.

From the second group, researchers find 73 percent of young people say their OCD has worsened during COVID-19. Over half say they’re experiencing more anxiety while 43 percent report they’re dealing with more depression.

“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. It’s therefore important to examine how such a significant crisis can affect the expression, frequency and progression of the disorder,” consultant Judith Nissen explains.

Study authors reveal respondents whose thoughts are focused on themselves or family members getting sick experienced more severe OCD symptoms. Children who have dealt with OCD since a young age saw the greatest increase in symptoms during the study.

“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, who may have greater difficulty understanding the significance of the infection, but who are also very dependent on parents and grandparents and thus are most vulnerable to loss,” Nissen adds.

Children fear losing their support network

OCD is typically associated with patients having compulsions to constantly wash their hands or clean things. While that may be the stereotype, the study did not find a link between fears of infection and a desire to wash hands more often. Instead, study authors say the pandemic’s greatest impact is the fear it’s instilling in children, who worry they may lose a loved one they rely on heavily.

“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. 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,” Nissen concludes.

The study appears in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

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