OCD Facts: Prevalence of OCD

Prevalence of OCD

OCD is far more prevalent than once thought.  In a 2001 World Health Organization mental health report, it was estimated that, in the year 2000, OCD was among the top 20 causes of illness-related disability, worldwide, for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age.  Moreover, many other research reports cite OCD as the fourth most common mental illness after phobias, substance abuse, and major depression.

In the past, OCD was thought to be rare in children and adolescents.  Studies conducted over the past several years, however, have shown that the lifetime prevalence of OCD in young people, worldwide, is approximately 1-2% (lifetime prevalence of OCD refers to the percentage of individuals in a given statistical population who, at some point in their lives, have experienced a case of OCD).  Research also suggests that the prevalence rate for OCD is lower among young children and increases during childhood and adolescence. Another figure commonly referred to in the OCD research is that at any one given point in time, OCD affects approximately 1 in 100 children.  Overall, OCD has been found to be one of the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adolescents.  Therefore, it is probable that the large majority of school personnel have encountered and/or will encounter students with OCD during their professional careers.

OCD doesn’t discriminate.  It affects children and adults of both genders, all races and ethnicities.  It occurs in every socioeconomic level and all over the U.S. and the world.  Moreover, prevalence rates of OCD appear to be very similar worldwide.  In clinical samples, however, OCD is found more often among Caucasian than minorities.  This may be due to the underrepresentation of minorities in clinical studies.

Factors Affecting OCD Diagnosis

Some people wonder how OCD could grow from a little-known condition just a few decades ago to one widely recognized today.  They ask if OCD is some new form of disorder brought about by the way our society is changing, or if parents are doing something differently today that has caused a spike in the prevalence of this disorder.

OCD is not new, but today much more is known about this neurobiological disorder than ever before.  To put it in perspective, consider that there were no consumer books written about OCD until the late 1980s and medical research did not begin until just a few decades ago.  Information was not readily available via the Internet until relatively recently.

This meant few tools were available in the past to help doctors understand OCD -- or to help struggling parents make sense of a child’s unusual behavior and help them treat that behavior.  Many families never asked their family physician for help, and those who did were often disappointed because family doctors and pediatricians did not have information about any illness that matched the symptoms the child was exhibiting.

In many parts of the U.S., parents did not have access to mental health professionals.  And the stigma of having a child with a mental illness caused many families to try to hide the truth for fear of gossip, discrimination and shame.  So experts now believe that, while OCD was certainly present in children (and adults) in the past,  the number of OCD cases was very much underdiagnosed, which might give the impression that OCD is a “new” disorder today, or that there is an “outbreak” of OCD. 

Unfortunately, some of the problems of the past still hold true today.  Access to mental health services is affected by factors such as location (e.g., individuals in rural areas frequently have less access to services), socioeconomic status (e.g., individuals in lower socioeconomic levels often do not have the means to seek help), and stigma (some individuals and even certain cultures associate mental illness with shame). Moreover, there remains a lack of professionals who are knowledgeable about and trained in therapies used specifically for OCD.  Therefore, despite recent improvements in the accurate and timely diagnosis of OCD, many children are still misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.

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