PEOPLE with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) typically suffer for around 12 years before seeking help—and when they do, they are most likely to find it inadequate.

That was the disturbing message given by one of the world’s leading specialists on OCD and anxiety disorders to the Triumph Over Phobia conference ‘Exploring OCD’ in London.

Paul Salkovskis, Bath University’s Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science, said that, typically, the condition developed to the point of disabling sufferers on average around the age of 20 but they did not seek help until around 12 years later, and only then in desperation. Often, by that time, the sufferer had developed further psychological complications.

Research showed that when they did overcome their shame, embarrassment and fear to seek help, 84 per cent of them receive ineffective treatment from therapists, he said.

OCD was an unnecessary illness: “We have fantastic treatments but they are being given too late. . .by that time their [the sufferers] life has often been emptied,” said Prof Salkovskis.

As many as one in 30 adults and one in 100 children suffer from OCD but, he said, the condition was poorly understood, even amongst professionals. “We have to make it possible for people to come forward earlier for help and that the help available is of good enough quality.” He highlighted the role of mental health charities such as TOP in raising awareness and providing support so that appropriate help can be sought.

And in the question-and-answer session at the end of the conference, Prof Salkovskis took issue with the media trivialisation of OCD, as in the Channel 4 TV programme Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, which, he argued, would deter OCD sufferers from seeking help. He said that when he complained to Channel 4 their response was: “It has ratings.”

Fellow OCD expert, Frederick Toates, Emeritus Professor of Biological Psychology at the Open University, described OCD as “an awful condition that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy” and described its similarities and differences to addiction. He also explained how certain drugs—serotonin uptake inhibitors—could alleviate the condition. Interestingly, he reported a three-week delay between the start of medication and the patient experiencing a change of mood, suggesting that it was causing the brain to reorganise itself.

He also pointed out that the intrusive thoughts which triggered overt OCD behaviours might prompt mental rituals instead.

Sharing the platform with the two professors was journalist Bryony Gordon, who caused a stir when she revealed her OCD condition in her column in the Daily Telegraph. She described how
compulsive thoughts, starting when she was aged 12, had led to her spending the 20s “in a spiral of self-medication with alcohol and cocaine.”

The meeting, held at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair on 16th March, was chaired by Triumph Over Phobia patron Carole Stone, CBE, the author and freelance radio and TV broadcaster. With more than 40,000 names in her electronic address book she’s been dubbed “London’s networking queen.”