What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where people experience recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas (obsession) and overwhelming urges to do certain things over and over again (compulsion).

We all have unwanted thoughts at times that can make us feel worried or scared. Most of the time, we can push them aside, or distract ourselves with something else. However, for people who have OCD, these unwanted thoughts can be persistent, harmful and take over their life.


These thoughts may be related to germs, not being able to throw things away, or terrible things happening. They can cause great anxiety and distress. People with OCD have rituals of behaviours they feel they must complete in order to manage their anxiety, or to prevent a certain situation or event from happening.

OCD can severely disrupt the lives of young people and stop them from getting to school or work on time, finishing homework, or going out with friends.

How common is OCD in young people?

OCD can affect anyone of any age. However, symptoms commonly begin during childhood and peak during late adolescence[i]. OCD is one of the most common mental disorders and has been recognised as the fourth most common mental illness after phobias, substance abuse, and major depression.[ii]

[i] RACGP, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2013/september/ocd/

What causes OCD?

There is no one cause of OCD. A number of different factors can contribute to it, including:

  • external factors like stressful events, grief, trauma, abuse or learning the behaviour from others
  • biological factors like having a family history of OCD, abnormalities in the brain, or having another mental health condition.

While young carers are not necessarily at higher risk of developing OCD, they are often under higher levels of stress than their peers who don’t have the added responsibility of caring. Young carers who look after someone with OCD may have a higher risk of developing it too.

But this doesn’t mean that you will get OCD.

What are the symptoms of OCD?

OCD is a condition that features unwanted thoughts that may feel intrusive and overwhelming, and cause a great amount of stress and anxiety. These may include:

  • worrying about germs, getting sick or dying
  • fear of hurting other people
  • excessive worrying about bad things happening
  • unwanted sexual or pornographic thoughts or images
  • unwanted thoughts or images about violence
  • preoccupation with religious issues or morality
  • needing to save, remember or collect things
  • excessive worrying about making a mistake.

OCD also involves compulsive behaviours (behaviours or routines that you must follow), which helps to manage the stress and uncertainty caused by these thoughts. These OCD compulsions may include:

  • excessively cleaning yourself, clothes, home or belongings
  • needing to put things in a particular order
  • repeating actions until they are ‘just right’
  • repeatedly checking things, for example door locks, light switches, taps
  • tapping, counting, repeating words or numbers or praying
  • having a ‘magical’ number for the amount of times you need to check, tap or count
  • hoarding or collecting things
  • constantly asking people for reassurance
  • making lots of lists
  • having rituals, you must perform, for example counting to a certain number
  • understanding your thoughts don’t make sense, but being unable to stop them.

Almost everyone experiences the thoughts that people with OCD have. It’s normal to worry about things like sickness or dying, especially if you’re caring for someone who is ill. Going back to check on things is also normal behaviour — we’ve all gone back to check we’ve locked a door, or turned off a tap.

However, if you can’t ignore unpleasant thoughts and turn your attention to other things, or if you feel driven to engage in a particular routine or behaviour to make you feel like everything is okay, then you may need help.

This example might help make things clearer, by putting these symptoms into perspective:

Harry is a 14-year old who helps his mum take care of his dad who has a low immune system. In order for his dad to stay well, his mum makes sure that their house is clean and that anyone who is sick stays away.

 Because of his dad’s health, Harry sometimes worries about what would happen if he got really sick and needed to go to hospital. Sometimes he even thinks about what would happen to his family if his dad died. This makes him feel very anxious, stressed and afraid.

 As a way to cope, Harry starts tapping 3 times for luck, every time he feels anxious about his dad. After a while, Harry starts to complete 3 sets of 3 taps. Soon, Harry is performing this routine before he leaves for school each day, and before he goes into every class. He also starts taking extra care about washing his hands, knowing that germs could make his dad sick. At school, he washes his hands multiple times at every break. He also spends lots of time at home washing his hands because he is worried about spreading germs. Harry begins to have constant thoughts about his dad dying from the germs that he brings home from school. He knows that these thoughts don’t make sense because germs can come from anywhere, but he can’t help it.

 Harry also starts to insist that everyone’s clothes are washed each day, and that the bathrooms are cleaned in the morning and in the evening, as a way to keep the germs away. He also begins to shower 3 times a day (morning, after school and before bed) because 3 is the magic number that will kill the germs and keep his dad safe. When his mum tells him that they don’t need to clean the bathroom that often, and that Harry only needs to have one shower each day, he becomes upset and even more anxious, believing that if his dad gets sick and dies, it will be all his fault.

 In the example above, Harry has some very normal reactions to his life:

  • worried about his dad’s health
  • worrying about what would happen if his dad got sick or died
  • feeling anxious, stressed and afraid when thinking about his dad dying
  • taking care to practice good hygiene to keep his dad safe.

However, Harry also shows some symptoms of OCD:

  • starting to tap three times
  • increasing the tapping to three sets of three taps
  • needing to perform his tapping routine before school and before every class at school
  • washing his hands more than he needs to
  • having constant thoughts about his dad passing away
  • believing he is bringing home the germs that will make  his dad really sick
  • showering three times a day
  • believing that three is a magic number that will kill germs and protect his dad
  • insisting on cleaning the bathrooms twice a day
  • becoming very upset and anxious when his mum tells him he only needs one shower a day and the bathrooms don’t need cleaning so often
  • believing that if his dad passes away it will be all his fault.

What can you do to feel better?

It’s very common for people with OCD to feel ashamed about their thoughts and the need to carry out their compulsive behaviours. If you can recognise any of the above symptoms, it’s important you speak to someone such as a teacher, support worker or counsellor. Remember, you’re not alone. There are a lot of people available who can help you and treatment can be very effective. Treatment to help you feel better usually involves speaking to a mental health professional.

Other things you can do include:

  • connecting with others who have OCD through community groups, or online forums
  • sharing and reading stories of other young carers to know you’re not alone
  • finding fun or relaxing activities
  • spending time with family and friends, as social isolation can make OCD worse
  • telling family and friends about your condition, so they can support you
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising
  • learning how to manage stress, as this will make a big difference to how you feel. You can do this by:
  • learning about OCD.

Where to go for help

OCD is a condition that can take over your life and prevent you from doing the things that you want and need to do. It’s important that you speak to your doctor about what’s going on, because with the right treatment, you can reduce or eliminate your symptoms.

To speak to someone, you can call:

Kids Help Line — 1800 55 1800

Headspace — 1800 650 890

Lifeline — 13 11 14. You can also ask for help via text message on 0477 13 11 14

You can find more information about OCD at:

Orygen Youth Health


SANE Australia

Your Health in Mind


Beyond Blue

Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

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