When people begin working with me to recover from OCD, it is common for them to discuss how they shared their deepest, most vulnerable fears with past medical or mental health professionals, people they trusted, or people who they believed could help them, only to leave the conversation feeling worse than when they entered, confused about their own experiences, or hopeless about their chances of recovery.
When you’re struggling with a condition as widely misunderstood as OCD, it’s important to share with people who are knowledgeable about and experienced with OCD, as they can best understand your experiences and provide appropriate support. In particular, professionals who routinely work with individuals with OCD as part of their clinical practice and who keep themselves informed of up-to-date scientific treatment literature about the nature and treatment of OCD are the most likely to be helpful to you.
Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned advice or guidance can end up feeding OCD, rather than making it better. I’m going to share examples of mental health and medical professionals who likely wouldn’t be able to provide specialized OCD care, as well as where to go if you want to find an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
Therapists without OCD training or experience
When people see mental healthcare professionals who are highly inexperienced and don’t have any specialty training in OCD, they risk working with the wrong person. Becoming a specialist in a particular area of treatment can take years. It takes passion, commitment, and specialized training, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Experience is what develops and fine-tunes these skills. Experience comes from treating many people with a specific condition.
The “general” mental health practitioner, like everyone, must start somewhere. Unfortunately, OCD is not a widely understood condition by therapists who are brand-new to their line of work and hasn’t received specialty training, and people can be misdiagnosed and mistreated by general practitioners, especially those who have little to no experience with OCD. Some even falsely advertise expertise in specific conditions like OCD, believing that they can consult with someone with more experience if needed.
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Additionally, when clinicians begin their careers, they can be hyper-focused on important things like crisis management. This is especially true if they are working in a non-profit setting or a community agency with limited resources. They want to do good, they want to avoid being liable should something bad happen, and they have the best intentions to help the people they work with.
That being said, they may be more likely to respond in an urgent manner to surface-level OCD symptoms without recognizing complex conditions like OCD. People who suffer from OCD may be confused about their own symptoms, describing intrusive thoughts as they would talk about any other thoughts they have. OCD specialists are able to recognize these thoughts as ego-dystonic—meaning they go against what the person desires, against who they are, and against their goals—but a general practitioner or inexperienced therapist may misdiagnose them with entirely different issues, placing them on a path of unhelpful treatments. This can have devastating effects for years to come, keeping people from accessing effective treatment for years.
Anyone you see to help you learn to manage OCD should be confident—but they have to earn that confidence with their knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, there are plenty of overconfident therapists who make promises that sound too good to be true, and they often get in the way of people’s OCD recovery journeys. They may guarantee that you will be “cured,” state that you just have to follow a few easy steps, or try to sell you a quick fix for something as complex as OCD.
If you’re struggling with OCD, you should seek licensed, trained professionals. Health gurus, people claiming only lived experience, and unlicensed mental health coaches may not be reliable sources of guidance and treatment. These people may often be valuable sources of guidance for other struggles and for mental health generally, but they often are not the most qualified to treat OCD.
A good rule of thumb is “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” If there was one simple, easy way to get rid of OCD, wouldn’t anyone want to do it? Of course! Unfortunately, many professionals take advantage of this desire. They see an opportunity to gain the trust of people who need effective help that they are unable to provide. Often, these treatments only make OCD symptoms worse.
Quick fixes and miracle cures are tempting, but OCD is a chronic illness. A perfect cure would be amazing for all of us who struggle with OCD, but that simply isn’t how it works. Many people’s OCD symptoms will never bother them again, but others may have to continue managing their condition to some extent, using the skills they learned to become “their own therapist.”
The vast majority of people in the US have a primary care physician: someone they see from time to time when they become ill or have a general health concern. Many people see them just once per year for an annual check-up. It makes sense that this would be the person that you call if and when you experience changes in your mental health.
No one person can truly specialize in everything. What a family doctor should do in cases like these is assess your situation generally and provide a referral to someone who is more qualified. If I go to my general practitioner with chest pain, they may run some tests and do some assessments, but they will most likely refer me to a cardiologist or someone else with expertise in my area of concern.
It may feel convenient if you see your family doctor and get a simple prescription for medication and a follow-up in a few months, but this should be a red flag. There is nothing wrong with medication management—it’s often central to mental healthcare—but it should be administered along with the recommendations of someone who specializes in mental health and who can make an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan.
Who can I talk to about OCD?
The goal of this article is to help you to understand the different roles professionals play in our lives in order to get the help we need. My hope is that you can be empowered and equipped to ask for what you need and what you deserve: accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
It is important to recognize that if you are experiencing mental health concerns, you should feel safe bringing them up with any health professional—but not all of these professionals should be sources of long-term treatment. While you don’t need to speak openly about everything you’re experiencing with people who aren’t qualified to help you, there are many types of healthcare professionals you can ask for appropriate care and guidance.
Too many people with OCD get misdiagnosed and mistreated. OCD is still very misunderstood by so many—even experienced professionals. If you are suffering, you should seek help from someone who is trained and experienced in treating OCD and who can provide long-term care for you.
Mental health professionals who are qualified to help you learn to manage OCD are different from traditional talk therapists. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is very precisely targeted toward one’s individual symptoms and was developed specifically to treat OCD. Other therapies may help people manage their symptoms in the short term, but they have not been shown to provide substantial long-term relief.
ERP is a very specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that yields highly effective results. When you begin working with a therapist who claims to use ERP, ensure that your therapist isn’t giving you constant reassurance about your thoughts, isn’t teaching you thought-stopping techniques, and isn’t encouraging you to explore the meaning behind your thoughts or feelings. These are all red flags that you are not doing ERP treatment.
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The good news is that today, effective treatment with a therapist who truly specializes in OCD is more accessible than ever, and overall awareness about OCD is on the rise. If you are struggling with OCD and need to work with a licensed therapist with specialty training, there’s no better time than right now.
ERP treatment teaches you to respond to your thoughts and fears without performing compulsions. If you would like to learn more about how ERP therapy can help you, schedule a free 15-minute call to speak to someone on the NOCD Care Team. They can answer all of your questions about starting treatment, getting matched with a qualified and licensed OCD specialist, and more. Even if NOCD is not the right fit, our team can connect you to other resources or appropriate avenues to receive specialized OCD care.