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Managing OCD in College 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a neurobiological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. In fact, the parts of the brain that are affected by OCD show up on brain scans. When someone has OCD, it feels like their brain gets stuck, which makes them feel very anxious and uncomfortable. In order to reduce anxious and uncomfortable feelings, individuals engage in repetitive behaviors, which eventually make OCD worse.

Going to college can be a challenging time for many students. In addition to separating from their families for the first time, students must learn to cope with academic pressure, lack of structure, live with people they don’t know and take on adult-like responsibilities. Because of this, many college students experience the first onset of mental health problems or experience a worsening of their existing symptoms. Studies have found that by the age of 25, 75% of individuals who will have a mental health disorder will have had their first onset. Unlike many other mental disorders, OCD often surfaces during childhood, with symptoms very similar to those of adults. Research shows that approximately 80% of individuals with OCD have onset of symptoms before age 18.

Many students go to college already aware that they have OCD. They may have developed OCD as a young child or in high school and they may think that going to college won’t be any different. However, college is very different from high school and because OCD symptoms often increase during times of stress and transition, it is not uncommon for OCD symptoms to flare. Old obsessions may be triggered or new obsessions may arise for the first time in college.

Obsession in college can be about:

  • Contamination
  • Responsibility
  • Relationships
  • Perfectionism
  • Sex
  • Scrupulosity/Morality/Religion
  • Appearance

It is important to be aware that young people with OCD who are going to college may face challenges that could have a detrimental effect on their academic and social success. If a college student has OCD that goes untreated, the student may not be able to participate, focus or study as well as they should and this may affect their ability to be successful in school. Many freshmen with OCD arrive at college without a management plan or mental health care in place and they often don’t ask for help until their symptoms worsen to the point that they compromise their education and emotional well-being. This can lead to social isolation, substance abuse, depression and academic failure.

In order to have a successful transition to college, the following recommendations should be considered:

  • Look into mental health resources before college starts. It is important to interview prospective therapists and find one who is experienced in treating OCD with ERP. Studies have found that more than 85% of individuals who were treated with ERP experienced a significant reduction in symptoms.
  • Manage stress by:
    – Establishing a sleep schedule. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day and get at least 7-9 hours of sleep.
    – Eating a healthy diet. Avoid excessive alcohol, sugar and caffeine.
    – Scheduling downtime.
  • Live an ERP lifestyle by incorporating ERP into as many parts of college life as possible.
  • Call home, but refrain from seeking reassurance from parents. Instead, have parents help and support ERP.

Many colleges and universities have resources available on campus in the form of mental health services or counseling centers. Unfortunately many student health centers do not provide appropriate treatment specific for OCD. It is important not to settle for traditional “talk therapy” as it is not effective for treating OCD and unfortunately many times it can make symptoms worse instead of better. It is imperative that college students become informed about appropriate therapy for OCD so they can get the right treatment. Going away to college is an exciting time in a young person’s life. By taking proactive steps, college students with OCD can have a great college experience. *When selecting an OCD provider, we suggest asking these questions

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Important Questions To Ask Any OCD Treatment Provider

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