New! Sign up for our free email newsletter.
Science News
from research organizations

Standard treatment programs for OCD are not always enough

November 18, 2019
Aarhus University
Cognitive behavioural therapy helps hundreds of children and adolescents to enjoy a better life with OCD, but the standard treatment programme is insufficient for a particular group of young people: They initially get better, but after three years some of them have actually gotten worse.

They wash their hands until the skin hangs in tatters, are in a state of panic about bacteria and infections -- and are unable to use common sense and distance themselves from the stressful thoughts that are controlling their lives.

Teenagers with the contamination and washing variant of OCD are not generally more ill than children and adolescents with other forms of disabling obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour. However, if they have poor insight into their condition, they find it more difficult to recover and become healthy again as a result of the 14-week cognitive behavioural therapy, which is the standard form of treatment in Denmark for OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

This is one of the conclusions of a newly published scientific study which Professor, Department Chair Per Hove Thomsen and PhD student Sanne Jensen are behind. They are employed at Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital, Psychiatry, in Denmark.

"The research project shows that in the longer term, some of the patients who initially appear to react positively to cognitive behavioural therapy unfortunately turn out not to have received the help that they need. This is particularly true of young people with cleanliness rituals and reduced insight into their condition," says Sanne Jensen.

"The tricky thing is that they initially react positively to the cognitive behavioural therapy, and they therefore leave the mental health services again after the 14-week period of treatment. But when we contact them again after three years, we can see they demonstrate a worrying development -- they have gotten worse," says Sanne Jensen about the research results, which have just been published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Both she and the study's senior researcher Per Hove emphasise that the research result does not in any way undermine the value of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is psychiatry's modern active form of treatment. It is characterised by patients receiving help from a practitioner to practise doing more of whatever it is that they are afraid of, while simultaneously training a realistic relation to the outside world. Mental health service's standard course of treatment lasts 14 weeks with a possible extension.

"Part of the overall picture is that almost eighty per cent of those we studied were so well-functioning following the cognitive behavioural therapy that after three years they no longer had OCD to a degree that required treatment," says Per Hove Thomsen.

He refers to the findings that after the three-year period, researchers measured the same low level of symptoms as they did following the completion of the treatment in no less than 210 out of 269 of the children and adolescents between the ages of 7-17 who participated in the study. Only 59 or approximately one in five of the young people were in a worrying situation where there was fear of a relapse after the three years had elapsed.

"We're fortunate that the study very precisely identifies the group which we should be keeping a close eye on after the end of the treatment, namely teenagers with cleanliness rituals/contamination anxiety and poor insights into their condition. This knowledge now needs to be disseminated to both clinicians and relatives," says Per Hove Thomsen -- well aware that the research results may lead to despondency among particularly vulnerable patients and their relatives. However, as he puts it:

"The conclusion isn't that you're doomed to a life-long disabling OCD if you're a teenager with cleanliness rituals and poor insights into your condition. There are also young people from this patient group who don't suffer a relapse. On the contrary, the conclusion is that we need to become better at following up on precisely these patients, because otherwise we risk leaving them in the lurch. Perhaps the treatment needs to be repeated, or perhaps there's a need to supplement the treatment with SSRI medicine," says Per Hove Thomsen.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Aarhus University. Original written by Nanna Jespersgård. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Sanne Jensen, Davíð R. M. A. Højgaard, Katja A. Hybel, Erik Lykke Mortensen, Gudmundur Skarphedinsson, Karin Melin, Tord Ivarsson, Judith Becker Nissen, Bernhard Weidle, Robert Valderhaug, Nor Christian Torp, Kitty Dahl, Scott Compton, Per Hove Thomsen. Distinct trajectories of long‐term symptom severity in pediatric obsessive–compulsive disorder during and after stepped‐care treatment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13155

Cite This Page:

Aarhus University. "Standard treatment programs for OCD are not always enough." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 November 2019. <>.
Aarhus University. (2019, November 18). Standard treatment programs for OCD are not always enough. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from
Aarhus University. "Standard treatment programs for OCD are not always enough." ScienceDaily. (accessed July 18, 2024).

Explore More

from ScienceDaily