How Common is OCD?
Living with OCD can be an incredibly lonely experience. If you don’t consciously seek out a community of other people who suffer from OCD, you might feel like there’s no one in the world like you. It can sometimes feel like nobody could ever understand the unique and dreadful emotional pain that this disorder brings, and that you’re all alone in the world.
In reality, you’re far from alone. For better or for worse, OCD is a lot more common than you might think; there are – literally – millions of people all across the globe that understand exactly what OCD feels like.
So exactly how common is OCD? We’ll explain all the data you’ll ever need to know.
What is OCD? A Recap
Before we get into the prevalence of OCD, let’s quickly recap what OCD is.
OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, is a diagnosable mental illness that is defined by the presence of two things: obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are recurring, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts that the person with OCD experiences. These thoughts could revolve around any theme, from “I’m going to get a disease” to “Could I be a pedophile without knowing it?” The unique thing about an obsession is that it causes the person who has the thought a great deal of distress, so they try to do anything to push it away.
Compulsions are what that person does to push the obsession away and ease their own anxiety. This could be any kind of repetitive, ritualistic behavior, whether it’s physical or mental, but what differentiates a compulsion from say, a coping skill, is that it’s extreme. A person who has the obsession, “I’m going to get a disease”, may wash their hands until they’re dry and cracked, have a ritual for touching doorknobs to minimize contamination, or mentally keep a list of every person they’ve shaken hands with.
Like with all mental illnesses, OCD causes significant impairment and distress to the person’s life. This is why it’s important to understand how many people are affected by this disorder; just like cancer or diabetes, it is a global public health issue that we need to pay attention to.
The Prevalence of OCD: The Numbers
There are articles alternately describing OCD as a “common” disease and a “rare” one, so it’s understandable if you’re confused about whether or not OCD is common in the general population.
It all depends on how you define “common”. Is OCD as common as, say, the flu? The answer, clearly, is no. However, as far as mental illnesses go, it is one of the more common ones. We’ll explain.
OCD is More Common Than You Think
Studies estimate that approximately 1 to 2% of the world population suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Considering that there are around 7.5 billion people in the world today, that estimates to be about 100 to 150 million people living with OCD.
In the U.S., the estimated number of people with OCD is 2.2 million adults, which is just above 1% of the country’s population; the percentage is similar in the U.K. Of course, OCD is commonly misdiagnosed – which we’ll talk about later – so the actual numbers may be much higher.
At first glance, 1 to 2% might make it sound like OCD is not actually a very serious problem. But think of it this way: that means that for every 100 people, 1 or 2 of them are suffering from this disorder. It might not be as common as other disorders like depression or anxiety, but that’s probably a lot more common than you imagined OCD to be.
Think about it: that’s more people than the entire population of Japan. It’s about as many people as live in Russia. It’s twice as many people as the population of the UK.
To use another grim comparison: as of the publication date of this article, less than 90 million people worldwide had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
When you think of it this way, it’s easier to imagine what a common and worldwide problem OCD is, and how important it is that we keep talking about this. OCD is a global health concern, and we need to take it very seriously.
OCD Prevalence Across the Globe
Of course, studies haven’t been conducted about the prevalence of OCD in every single country across the world. The countries that have been researched, however, have mostly shown a similar rate of OCD prevalence as the U.S.
Here are some estimated rates of OCD prevalence in different countries across the globe:
- United States: 1.2% (2.2 million adults, or the size of Houston, Texas)
- United Kingdom: 1.2% (750 thousand people, or about the size of Leeds)
- Canada: 0.93%
- Australia: 2% (500 thousand Australians, or more people than the population of Newcastle)
- Iran: 1.8%
- Taiwan: 0.4% (People in Taiwan have a lower rate of psychiatric disorders in general)
- Korea: 1.1%
- New Zealand: 1.1%
- Puerto Rico: 1.8%
- Japan: 1.7%
- India: 0.6%
Some countries do seem to experience a much lower prevalence of OCD symptoms, although more research is needed to confirm that. However, in general, OCD’s prevalence around the world hovers between 1 and 2 percent.
Can OCD Go Undetected?
These numbers are usually based both on the number of people who seek treatment for OCD, as well as clinical studies that measure the prevalence of OCD in random samples of the general population. This means that we can trust that they’re at least fairly accurate.
However, we should also keep in mind that many people who are suffering from OCD might be going under the radar. Usually, OCD is easily detected when someone’s compulsions are physical and visible to people around them. For example, someone who needs to check their locks exactly 7 times, or people who audibly pray compulsively, are going to raise the concern of those around them.
Like we talked about earlier, though, compulsions can be either physical or mental. Some people with OCD who suffer from other types of compulsions (like reviewing memories, reassuring themselves, or even seeking reassurance from others) might very well go undetected.
Often, these people are misdiagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or another mental illness. Of course, people with OCD do experience intense anxiety associated with their obsessions, but OCD and anxiety are not the same thing.
These numbers are referring to the estimated rate of OCD prevalence, but the actual number of people suffering from OCD – and going undetected – could very well be much higher.
Who Gets OCD?
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: anyone, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality, or nationality, can get OCD. Although the exact cause of OCD still isn’t completely understood, what is known is that both genetics and environment affect your risk of developing this disorder.
Although no one is “safe” from developing OCD, there are certain groups of people who, statistically, are diagnosed more often with OCD than others.
Research has shown that women, for whatever reason, are diagnosed with OCD far more often than men are. Some experts estimate that the lifetime prevalence of women with OCD worldwide is estimated to be over 1.5%, while the prevalence for men is estimated to be only 1%. In the U.S., the gap seems to be even higher: 1.8% of women were estimated to have OCD, while only 0.5% of men were.
Some other studies show that people who identify strongly with a religion might be more likely to develop OCD than people who don’t. One study found that people who identified as highly religious Protestant Christian, specifically, had a higher likelihood of having OCD.
In terms of age, people of any age can become diagnosed with OCD. However, studies show that most people begin to have symptoms before the age of 25; the onset age seems to be slightly younger for men than for women.With that said, though, many people are misdiagnosed with other mental disorders during their youth, so it’s possible that people aren’t getting properly diagnosed until years after the first onset of symptoms.
However, at the end of the day, people across countries, the gender spectrum, sexual orientations, religions, and races, get diagnosed with OCD. There might also be cultural and discrimination factors that prevent certain groups of marginalized people from getting proper diagnosis and treatment – on top of being unconsciously excluded from research studies – which would affect prevalence statistics.
The Prevalence of OCD vs. Other Mental Illnesses
OCD isn’t the only mental health disorder that’s commonly seen in the world’s population. As far as mental illnesses go, OCD isn’t the most common, but it’s pretty high up there. Here’s how OCD compares, in prevalence, to other mental illnesses.
- OCD vs. Anxiety: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the world; approximately 284 million people worldwide are estimated to suffer from anxiety. That’s over 100 million more people than those who suffer from OCD.
- OCD vs. Depression: Depression is also one of the top causes for disability in the world; approximately 264 million people suffer from the disease, according to the World Health Organization. This is almost double as many people as OCD.
- OCCD vs. Panic Disorder: Approximately 1 to 2% of the population suffers from panic disorder (although the number is higher – around 5% – when measuring people who experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime). This is about the same as the amount of people who suffer from OCD.
- OCD vs. Bipolar Disorder: Although Bipolar Disorder is a serious mental health condition with dangerous consequences, less than 50 million people in the world are estimated to experience it; far less than the number of people with OCD.
- OCD vs. Schizophrenia: Psychosis is what many people think of when they think of “mental illness”, but schizophrenia actually isn’t one of the most common mental illnesses in the world. Around 20 million people in the world are thought to suffer from schizophrenia – only a small portion of those with OCD.
- OCD vs. PTSD: Trauma is a common human experience, and some people who go through trauma develop PTSD. Although the research results measuring the rates of PTSD in the world population have delivered mixed results, one review estimated that around 12% of the world population experiences PTSD at some point in their lives. It’s likely that more people suffer from PTSD than from OCD, because trauma is so common.
- OCD vs. Substance Use Disorder: It is estimated that around 2% of the world suffers from a substance use disorder, although this percentage ranges greatly by country. Some countries have found to experience alcohol abuse at up to a 16% incidence rate. Whether or not OCD or Substance Use Disorder is more common depends on the country in which you live. In the U.S., for example, more people suffer from drug and alcohol abuse (5%) than OCD.
- OCD vs. Borderline Personality Disorder: The prevalence of Borderline Personality Disorder in the general population is estimated to be about 1.6%, which is nearly equal to the estimated prevalence of OCD.
As these numbers make clear, OCD is absolutely one of the most common mental illnesses worldwide, although it’s not the most common.
However, to fully understand these statistics, you need to understand the concept of comorbidity. Comorbidity basically means that people can (and often do) suffer from more than one mental health diagnosis at the same time.
What does that mean for us? Basically, the 284 million people suffering from an anxiety disorder and the 150 million people suffering from OCD, for example, aren’t necessarily different people. There are likely many individuals who fall into both of those pools.
OCD’s rates of comorbidity with depression, especially, makes this concept clear. Research shows that up to 80% of people with OCD experience at least one depressive episode in their lives, and a third are diagnosed with both OCD and Major Depressive Disorder.
That means that many of those 284 million people who suffer from depression also suffer from OCD.
Some Symptoms of OCD Are Even More Common
Remember that these numbers and statistics are only measuring people who qualify for the diagnostic criteria (according to the DSM-V) for OCD. When we start measuring the prevalence of OCD just based on the number of people who experience OCD symptoms (like obsessive thoughts), that number becomes much, much higher.
Some research studies have found that over 90% of the general population experiences intrusive thoughts, similar to the thoughts that people with OCD experience.
Does that mean that over 9 out of 10 people in the world suffer from OCD? Fortunately, the answer to that is no.
Although most people do experience intrusive thoughts, what sets people with OCD apart is how they react to these thoughts. Most people, without OCD, are able to brush these intrusive thoughts off as “just thoughts”. People with OCD ruminate on them and give them a lot of importance – and thus, turn them into obsessions.
As an example, let’s take the intrusive thought: “What if I picked up this knife and stabbed my mom?” Someone without OCD, even if the thought entered their minds, might say to themselves: “Hmm. That’s weird. I wonder why I’d think something like that? Oh well.” and move on with their lives.
Someone with OCD, though, would linger on the thought. “Why did I just think that?” they might think. “What does it mean about me that I had that thought? Maybe it means that I secretly really do want to kill my mom. I must be a horrible person.” In short, the thought becomes an obsession.
Of course, if you have OCD, compulsions always follow obsessions. While the person without OCD would get back to whatever they were doing, a person with OCD might feel like they need to do something to make themselves feel better or to protect themselves and others from the imagined danger. They might hide all the knives in the room, compulsively avoid knives, or ask for reassurance over and over again that they’re not a murderer.
So does 94% of the population suffer from OCD? No. But certain symptoms that we think of as only being associated with OCD, like intrusive thoughts, are actually much more common than you probably ever imagined.
Has OCD Become More Common Recently?
OCD has been in the media more often lately, and conversations about the disorder have seemed to become more public, in both positive and negative ways. Inappropriate jokes about OCD have become widespread, especially since the pandemic has caused us all to be more careful about our sanitation practices. On a more positive note, though, the mental health community is also experiencing an inspiring revolution towards awareness and destigmatization.
This makes some people wonder: is OCD more common now than it used to be? It certainly seems to be talked about more.
There is research that suggests there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people who are diagnosed with OCD, especially during the 1980s. However, we don’t think that there are suddenly more people who experience symptoms of OCD. OCD isn’t new; it’s actually an age-old disorder that has been acknowledged since the 15th century.
We think that rather than more people experiencing OCD, what the research shows is that more people are getting diagnosed with OCD – and that’s a great thing.
Most likely, what’s happening is two things: 1. Mental health advocates are increasing the public’s awareness about OCD, along with other mental illnesses. This is a wonderful thing; the more we talk about these disorders, the less stigma there is – and the less stigma there is, the more people will be willing and able to get the right diagnosis and treatment.
The second thing that may be happening is that as our understanding of OCD deepens, more people are given the correct diagnosis. People with OCD are often misdiagnosed with other mental health disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder. A correct diagnosis is crucial, because without it, the person with OCD is likely to receive improper treatment.
Why Do We Care?
So why do we care enough about the prevalence of OCD to write an entire article on it?
To us, it’s not just about a run-down of the numbers; it’s about spreading awareness about the fact that OCD is a global health issue.
It’s not just a small group of socially awkward individuals with strange and rigid habits who are suffering from OCD – which is often the stigma associated with this disorder. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of people who suffer every day from the painful symptoms of OCD. And even more tragically, only a fraction of that number ever get the treatment needed to recover.
The World Health Organization even named OCD as one of the top 10 causes for disability around the world. At its worst, especially when left untreated, OCD can become completely debilitating. Perhaps if we start understanding what a common disorder this is, we’ll start taking identification, diagnosis, and treatment for OCD patients more seriously. Perhaps then, there will be fewer people with OCD falling through the cracks.
How To Recover From OCD
Fortunately for the millions of people who suffer from OCD across the globe, there is fantastic and effective treatment out there. The most important thing is to receive the correct diagnosis; once you’ve been accurately diagnosed, then you can start taking steps towards recovering from this debilitating disorder.
The gold standard for OCD treatment is a therapy technique called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. ERP is a CBT-based exposure therapy model that helps you to confront your obsessive fears without reacting in a compulsive way. A certain class of antidepressant drugs, called SSRIs, have also been shown to be effective for OCD symptoms.
Like we’ve learned today, though, OCD is a worldwide problem – and not everyone everywhere has access to quality OCD treatment.
Another option is to use a self-help program like Impulse Therapy. We use ERP, along with other evidence-based techniques, in our curriculum – so you can be sure you’re getting the most effective help.