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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) sees sufferers’ lives ruled by fears and rituals. Here’s how to help.

We all get thoughts stuck in our heads sometimes, or check our bags several times for keys or other items we’re afraid of mislaying, even though we know they’re there. But for those battling with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), irrational fears become overwhelming, and the urge to perform certain rituals to calm them develops into a compulsion that dominates their lives, interfering with their ability to function.

OCD affects about three percent of us at some stage of our lives, usually starting in early adulthood, says Cassey Chambers, operations director of the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG). Obsessions can vary widely, but one of the most common is fear of contamination – by dirt, germs, chemicals, radiation, sticky substances, cancer or AIDS. This can trigger ritualistic cleaning, obsessive hand-washing, or avoidance – always wearing gloves or socks, or opening doors with elbows.

Other OCD sufferers fear making a mistake or harming people by poisoning food, spreading illness or running over a pedestrian, which can lead them to avoid cooking, driving or going out. Still others are terrified they’ll set fire to their house or flood it, so they constantly check stoves and taps; or that they’ll lose valuables, which leads to them repeatedly checking these are where they should be. And some are compelled to constantly organise and arrange things, or hoard them – afraid to throw anything away, however useless.

Here’s how you can support your loved one with OCD

  1. Don’t criticise or embarrass them: the anxiety can make symptoms worse, and they may already have a low self-image.
  2. Direct them to reputable websites such as www.sadag.org, or download online information for them to read.
  3. Give encouragement – assure them they are not alone and that treatments today help significantly reduce symptoms in most people.
  4. Suggest they speak to a mental health professional.
  5. If they still refuse to admit they have a problem, don’t give in, says Chambers. “Gently explain that you will not be involved in the OCD, and that your offer to help find a doctor or therapist still stands.”
  6. Tell them you will help them resist their compulsions and support them by reinforcing good behaviours.
  7. Recognise gains made in treatment and be flexible during stressful times.
  8. Stay positive – remind yourself and them that OCD is nobody’s fault.
  9. Get support from SADAG 0800 21 22 23, SMS 31393 or visit www.sadag.org.