The struggles of people with OCD during the pandemic deserve attention

Discussions about the pandemic and mental health have been far too limited in their focus. The voices of those who struggle with OCD must also be heard

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a mirror crisis for people who struggle with their mental health.

After the most recent lockdown, when the government announced their reopening plan, my first thought was “I’m not ready to see anyone or be in crowds” — and I think many people had this reaction. Many people who have never suffered with OCD tendencies will have picked it up during the global pandemic, and it seems to be a largely forgotten narrative when it comes to COVID-19. 

Slowly, we can all see our lives returning to normal. Colleges and schools are back open, shops are filled to the brim with customers, people are sitting in coffee shops again. It’s something of a wondrous sight; I think many of us thought we would never even get here. But here we are. However, there seems to be a big chunk of the narrative of “returning to normal” that is barely getting a look-in. While it is absolutely fantastic to see everything opening up and everyone slowly getting back to their lives, this isn’t the case for everybody.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a mirror crisis for people who struggle with their mental health. Many people, who may have never even suffered before with their mental health, had found lockdown upon lockdown extraordinarily difficult. But the talk always centered around “covid anxiety” or depression with being stuck in one room, and rarely have I heard anyone mention the effects the pandemic has had on people who suffer with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). 

OCD is when an individual has obsessions or compulsions, or both. It can take the form of recurrent and persistent thoughts or thought patterns, which may be intrusive or unwanted. It can also take the form of repetitive behaviors or actions, such as repeated hand washing or mental acts like counting, that an individual feels they must repeat a certain amount of times. There is a general conception that OCD centers around someone being a “germaphobe” or being obsessed with cleaning, and while this can be attributed to OCD sometimes, the generality of OCD does not take this form, and that is why so many people attribute these symptoms to anxiety. 

I have had OCD tendencies for the majority of my life. Mine have always centered around things that I would have found “dirty” or “messy”, such as sauces or physical contact with people I don’t know, or even touching door handles. Before the pandemic, all my friends thought it was hilarious I carried around a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere I went and used it after touching any public surface, like a bus rail. It was “quirky” to myself and many other people; that was until COVID-19 hit, and it became a much bigger problem. 

I stopped going anywhere two days before Leo Varadkar announced schools and colleges were to shut. I was sitting in the Arts Building, and College had just announced that all large scale lectures would be moved online until the end of the year. I started to panic. I emailed my TA I had later in the day, and told them I couldn’t make it for some reason. I started my journey home. On the Luas, someone sitting beside me started to cough. I couldn’t think about anything else but that cough for two weeks; I came home and washed my hands four times, washed the clothes I had on that day three times, and stood in the shower for 45 minutes. I remember everything that happened that day, as I’m sure many people do when they first realized the severity of COVID-19. 

The situation only worsened from there. Every time I left my house, even to just go for a walk outside, I’d come home and wash everything I was wearing. I’d wipe down my jacket with disinfectant wipes. I’d stand in the shower for probably longer than is considered healthy. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people felt this way. We didn’t know how contagious COVID-19 was, or even how dangerous it was. But for people with OCD or OCD tendencies, this didn’t miraculously disappear when the government announced reopening plans and things were beginning to become safer. 

After the most recent lockdown, when the government announced their reopening plan, my first thought was “I’m not ready to see anyone or be in crowds”; and I think many people had this reaction. I knew my life needed to get back to normal, so I began to work on it. It wasn’t really until I was fully vaccinated in July that I felt somewhat okay with seeing my friends regularly, or getting public transport. It wasn’t until I was vaccinated that I stepped foot on the Luas again in fear of someone coughing beside me. I’m thankful that I worked on it, because now it is less of a deal for me, and I don’t obsess about it as much. My life is returning to normal(ish) and I’m not freaking out over coming into contact with people anymore. 

“There has been little to no discussion of how a return to normal life or a return to full-scale classes will affect students who are not necessarily in the right position mentally for it.”

However, with everything reopening, I can’t help but think about someone who would have been in the position I was in this time last year. There is absolutely no way that in October of last year, in the height of the pandemic, that I would have stepped foot on campus, nevermind sit in class or use public transportation. There has been little to no discussion of how a return to normal life or a return to full-scale classes will affect students who are not necessarily in the right position mentally for it. On a wider scale, there’s been no widespread media coverage of how people with OCD have done during the pandemic. It seems to be an outlier to most people. Some might think that there are bigger problems, but this needs to be addressed. Many people who have never suffered with OCD tendencies will have picked it up during the global pandemic, and it seems to be a largely forgotten narrative when it comes to COVID-19. 

“Not having the capacity for normality yet is okay; forcing students, or any individual, back to ‘normal’ is certainly not.”

I agree that we all have to get back to normal. I’m delighted to see groups of students on campus. I love that people are out drinking in bars again, and that life is slowly returning to normalcy. But there needs to be discussion around how this return to normal may not be the same for everyone. Some people will be struggling more than others, and people need to be able to reach out and help if they can. College needs to put provisions in place by making the option for a lot of lectures to be recorded and uploaded. We shouldn’t leave people behind in our reopening plans, and this includes setting up some kind of support for people who may not be ready to return to normal. Not having the capacity for normality yet is okay; forcing students, or any individual, back to “normal” is certainly not.

Shannon Connolly

Shannon Connolly is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of English Literature and Philosophy. She previously served as News Editor and Assistant News Editor.