Though mental health is openly acknowledged and being treated more than ever before, many people fail to realize that those who suffer from a mental illness tend to have more than one. Typically, an individual doesn’t just have depression–they have depression and anxiety and bipolar disorder and any number of other mental illnesses, which makes it so much more difficult to properly diagnose and treat them. But why exactly do mental illnesses tend to coincide?
Having multiple illnesses at the same time is actually known as comorbidity, and doesn’t just apply to mental illnesses. For example, comorbidity can entail having both heart disease and depression. It also indicates that your illnesses intersect in such a way that they negatively impact one another. Comorbidity is so common that about half of the people living with one disorder also exhibit symptoms of another disorder (Intrusive Thoughts).
A common disorder that coincides with OCD is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Many questions have been raised about the difference between generalized anxiety disorder and OCD. The DSM, which is the widely accepted guide for diagnosing mental illness, has historically classified OCD as an anxiety disorder. It wasn’t until the DSM-5 that the category of anxiety disorders was split into three distinct categories: anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders (MentalHelp.net). Due to the great commonalities between anxiety and OCD, it has often been difficult to distinguish between the two, especially if someone has both OCD and GAD. A crucial difference between the two however, is that OCD is characterized by persistent and repetitive fears that are not grounded in reality, whereas generalized anxiety disorder tends to be characterized by more realistic fears (Intrusive Thoughts). For example, someone with OCD may fear that failing to wash their hands a certain number of times a day will give them cancer, whereas someone with GAD may feel deeply unwilling to give a presentation in class, for fear of embarrassment. This explains why these disorders so often co-exist, because both are rooted in intense feelings of fear and doubt.
Another mental illness that typically co-exists with OCD is depression. About 60% of sufferers have experienced at least one depressive episode in their lives, and this depression often tends to be ongoing (Intrusive Thoughts). Additionally, many people with OCD and depression have these depressive symptoms because of their OCD, simply due to the all-encompassing nature of OCD in which many sufferers feel trapped by their condition (Intrusive Thoughts).
OCD has also been linked to eating disorders, particularly because of the prevalence of eating in our everyday lives, and how OCD impacts people’s everyday behaviors. For example, if you begin to fear that certain food you eat may be poisoned or may immediately harm you, this leads to a pattern of disordered eating that can develop into a full-blown eating disorder if not treated properly from the beginning.
The true prevalence of comorbidity is something that must be acknowledged in order for people to be properly diagnosed and treated for their mental illnesses. OCD, on its own, can be very debilitating and can become even more debilitating when combined with another mental illness that may go undiagnosed. The more informed we become about mental illnesses and their symptoms, the easier it will become for people to be properly diagnosed and treated for any mental illnesses they may be suffering from.
Home. (n.d.). OCD And Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.mirror-mirror.org/ocd.htm.
Intrusive Thoughts. (n.d.). OCD and Comorbidity. Retrieved from https://www.intrusivethoughts.org/?topic=comorbidity.
MentalHelp.net. (n.d.). The new DSM-5: Anxiety Disorders and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/anxiety/and-obsessive-compulsive-disorders-new-dsm-5/.