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Op Eds

OCD and Suicide Risk in the Age of COVID-19

By A.J. Veneziano
A.J. Veneziano ’23 is a History and Literature concentrator in Kirkland House.

In the epoch of face masks, social distancing, and constant reminders in the media of the dangers posed by COVID-19, the importance of physical health is omnipresent. Just recently, the United States surpassed 200,000 deaths as many states continue to ease restrictions in hopes of a return to normalcy. However, another silent killer walks among the 2.2 million Americans diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: suicide. Even before the pandemic, 36 percent of patients with OCD reported suicidal ideation, and today, both the fear of coronavirus infection and social isolation risk increasing this rate. September is national suicide awareness month, so it is only fitting to raise awareness of how those with OCD are facing an epidemic within a pandemic.

OCD is often portrayed in the media and popular culture as an innocuous quirk synonymous with perfectionism, such as maintaining order and ensuring everything is in the correct place. Examples off the top of my head include Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” and Monica from “Friends.” Furthermore, OCD has entered colloquial jargon when non-diagnosed individuals need to organize their bookshelf or align their fork with their knife. “It’s my OCD” is a common phrase uttered which, despite good intentions, downplays the severity of the condition.

These media imitations, in reality, only “represent” one half of the disorder — the compulsive half — and fail to convey the harm caused by many of its resulting symptoms. Intense cleaning can mean anything from washing one’s hands for five minutes straight in order to alleviate the anxiety to spending the entire day wiping down surfaces, inhibiting the individual from doing anything else. When I was a child, I would stand at a lightswitch for minutes on end to make sure that the lights were off, for fear of causing a house fire.

The other half of the disorder consists of unbearably obsessive thoughts, which I confront daily. These can range anywhere from fears of disasters (a fire while I am sleeping), contamination (fueling the incessant hand-washing), and uncertainty (what if I fail this assignment?). The aforementioned thoughts may sound comically ridiculous to a bystander — which is why I refrain from sharing this aspect of myself — but are crucial insight into the challenges individuals with OCD may be facing. Furthermore, these thoughts do not simply disappear; they will hound you while you work on a pset, go to dinner, or try to focus during lecture.

This brings us to 2020. While the invisible viral killer continues to spread, OCD also attacks the mind, creating a dually challenging lifestyle for Americans with OCD. For an individual who exhibits compulsive tactile behaviors such as picking things up or biting nails, this time period is extremely difficult. Refraining from these tactile behaviors means dealing with the burning anxiety for hours on end. Furthermore, aggressive hand washers will likely feel the need to increase this behavior. For example, going out to get the mail may warrant an intense washing upon returning inside.

Obsessions are equally as excruciating during the pandemic, which I can attest personally to. On campus, after watching a group of students by the river socialize without masks, my brain floods my head with worries, constantly telling me that I am going to catch COVID and die soon (the odds of which are statistically slim). Or, when I grab the handrail on the T, my brain says I must immediately wash my hands or face the consequences. Again, the emotional anxiety is much more powerful than the rational half of my brain.

In addition to the health factors, this pandemic has brought one more huge blow to individuals grappling with OCD and other mental conditions: the lack of social connection. Any other year, I would take my mind off of my struggles and go to a party or hang out with friends at Felipe’s. Now, however, we must fight these battles alone and resort to text or FaceTime for social support. Social isolation is known to compound this risk of suicide, and this will be felt especially acutely by those with pre-existing mental health conditions.

As September is suicide awareness month, I implore anyone reading this to do what they can to support those with OCD. The easiest thing to do is keep following health guidelines: wear a mask and wash your hands! Whether or not you know it, this can alleviate the stress of someone with intrusive thoughts. More importantly, though, reach out to friends and stay connected. You never know when a text from a friend is a call for help as opposed to an effect of boredom. Check up on your loved ones, whether virtually or safely in person. Use resources. CAMHS wants to help you, and I want to help you. The beautiful thing is that community support can be the solution to individual pain.

A.J. Veneziano ’23 is a History and Literature concentrator in Kirkland House.

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