A study published this June in the journal of European Psychiatry assesses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in patients with OCD. The work examines not only changes in the severity of OCD but also the pre-existing conditions, the new conditions caused by the health emergency, the treatment, the use of mental health resources, the development of obsessive fears of contamination by SARS-CoV-2, and the use of emotional regulation and strategies to face the stress.
Social distancing and strict respiratory and hands hygiene have been key strategies to control the COVID-19 infection. Constant reminders to wash hands and decrease physical contact with other people or any surface have generalized behaviors that resemble those usually exhibited by OCD patients, with obsessions for contamination and compulsions to wash. Beyond fears related to the risk of contagion, social and economic changes have generated potentially powerful stressors, such as confinement at home, limited freedom, economic uncertainty, and difficulties in accessing mental health services.
The study analyzes the data of 127 patients with OCD evaluated by a specialist at Bellvitge Hospital during the initial phase of the pandemic using specific OCD tests and a structured interview that collected clinical and sociodemographic information. The results were compared with 237 healthy controls from the same geographic area who completed an online survey.
The results of the work, led by Dr. Pino Alonso, a member of the IDIBELL Psychiatry and Mental Health group led by Dr. José Manuel Menchon and a psychiatrist at the Hospital de Bellvitge, allow us to conclude that although many patients with OCD were able to cope the emotional stress of the COVID-19 outbreak and its consequences during the initial phase of the pandemic, its evolution constitutes a risk factor for a significant worsening of symptoms and suicidal ideation in one among three obsessive patients. “65% of the patients with OCD described a worsening of their symptoms, and this deterioration was very significant in 31% of the patients interviewed,” according to Dr. Pino Alonso. On the other hand, the risk of becoming infected by the virus was reported as a new obsession by half of them, although it only became the main obsessive concern in approximately 10% of patients.
On the other hand, thoughts related to suicide were more frequent among OCD patients than in healthy controls. Likewise, the presence of pre-pandemic depression, the highest scores on the YBOCS scale (which assesses the severity of OCD symptoms) the presence of contamination fears and previous washing/cleaning rituals, and perceived low social support predicted a significantly increased risk of worsening obsessive compulsive disorder.
Researchers from the Center for Research in Molecular Medicine and Chronic Diseases of the University of Santiago de Compostela, the CIBERER of the same university, the Galician Public Foundation for Genomic Medicine of SERGAS, the Institute of Health Research of Santiago de Compostela, and the Laboratory of Psychological Neuroscience of the University of Minho, Portugal also participated in the study.
The Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) is a biomedical research center created in 2004. It is participated by the Bellvitge University Hospital and the Viladecans Hospital of the Catalan Institute of Health, the Catalan Institute of Oncology, the University of Barcelona and the City Council of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.
IDIBELL is a member of the Campus of International Excellence of the University of Barcelona HUBc and is part of the CERCA institution of the Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2009 it became one of the first five Spanish research centers accredited as a health research institute by the Carlos III Health Institute. In addition, it is part of the “HR Excellence in Research” program of the European Union and is a member of EATRIS and REGIC. Since 2018, IDIBELL has been an Accredited Center of the AECC Scientific Foundation (FCAECC).