What is OCD?

Obsession Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where a person has recurrent and unwanted ideas or impulses (called obsessions) and an urge or compulsion to do something to relieve the discomfort causedby the obsession. The obsessive thoughts range from the idea of losing control, to that of keeping things or parts of one’s body clean all the time. Compulsions are behaviors that help reduce the anxiety surrounding the obsessions. Most people (90%) who have OCD have both obsessions and compulsions. Even though the thoughts and behaviors are senseless, repetitive, distressing, and sometimes harmful, they are also difficult to overcome. For many years, mental health professionals thought of OCD as a rare disease because only a small minority of their patients had the condition. The disorder often went unrecognized because many of those afflicted with OCD, in efforts to keep their repetitive thoughts and behaviors secret, failed to seek treatment. This led to underestimates of the number of people with the illness. However, a survey conducted in the early 1980s by the National Institute of Mental Health(NIMH)–the Federal agency that supports research nationwide on the brain, mental illnesses, and mental health–provided new knowledge about the prevalence of OCD. The NIMH survey showed that OCD affects more than 2 percent of the population (3.3 million), meaning that OCD is more common than such severe mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or panic disorder. Today, OCD strikes people of all ethnic groups. One in 50 adults in the United States currently has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and twice that many have had this disabling disorder at some point in their lives. Males and females are equally affected. The social and economic costs of OCD were estimated to be $8.4 billion in 1990 (NIMH, 1999, NIH 99-3755). Although OCD symptomstypically begin during the teenage years or early adulthood, recent research shows that some children develop the illness at earlier ages, even during the preschool years. Studies indicate that at least one-third of cases of OCD in adults began in childhood. Suffering from OCD during early stages of a child’s development can cause severe problems for the child. It is important that the child receive evaluation and treatment by a knowledgeable clinician to prevent the child from missing important opportunities because of this disorder. OCD does tend to run in families, sometimes in two, three, or even four consecutive generations. About 15% to 20% of those with OCD come from families in which another immediate family member has the same problem.

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