I’ve written posts and articles about my son Dan’s struggle with OCD in college, and our family’s experience is also fully chronicled in my book Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery. The most frustrating aspects of this portion of Dan’s journey were not only the widespread lack of understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also dealing with an academic support staff who had no idea how to help him.
To be fair, it really wasn’t their fault. They were willing to help; they just didn’t know how. Aside from offering extra time on tests (which is often not even a good idea for those with OCD) they were at a loss. And so were we. Once we realized that Dan was struggling with time management, the balance of details within the big picture, and over-thinking, we asked that these issues be addressed mainly through the open-mindedness and flexibility of his professors.
But now there is something more concrete those with OCD can offer the academic support staff at schools and colleges. A January 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine involved questioning 36 adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder and 36 healthy adolescent controls. Participants were asked to complete two memory tasks designed to measure learning and cognitive flexibility. Adolescents with OCD struggled with cognitive inflexibility and showed significant impairments in both learning and memory. The study is summarized nicely here if you’d like to learn more about it.
I believe the implications of this study are huge. For one, unaddressed learning and memory issues in an academic environment are sure to stress already anxious children or adolescents. Their confidence and self-esteem are also likely to be affected. Not surprisingly, all of these issues can exacerbate OCD and quickly lead to a downhill spiral in both academic performance and overall well-being. The results of this study have already been shared with the appropriate professionals who have subsequently helped students with OCD achieve a level playing field and realize their potential. What a relief this must be for students and their families who have struggled for so long, yet haven’t quite been able to put into words what they are actually struggling with.
Another important implication of this study is that it educates and enlightens those who still have little to no understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are academic support staff out there who believe those with OCD just need to be able to leave the room if they “have” to wash their hands – that is the extent of their comprehension of the disorder. But problems with memory, learning, cognitive inflexibility? Who knew? This study provides concrete evidence that those with OCD can use to advocate for themselves.
We are making progress. Slowly but surely, researchers are working hard to chisel away at the mysteries of obsessive-compulsive disorder, helping those with OCD along the way and giving them hope.