How practitioners and policy-makers can support children with obsessive compulsive disorder

March 11, 2024

Findings from a recent systematic review by the Children’s Health Policy Centre offer hope for children with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These results suggest five implications for practice and policy:

  • Start with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for childhood OCD. A strong body of evidence supports CBT — showing that it produces clinically meaningful reductions in both symptoms and diagnoses. It is also effective for children ranging from ages three to 18. CBT should therefore be the starting point for treatment.
  • Build CBT capacity. Despite the strong evidence for CBT’s effectiveness in treating OCD, many young people have difficulties finding a practitioner to provide this intervention. In fact, in most countries, young people with OCD have limited access to CBT. Canadian policy-makers therefore may need to invest in training so that more practitioners can provide this highly effective treatment in public settings — and so that all children with OCD can receive timely treatment, with no out-of-pocket costs.
  • Support family involvement. CBT for OCD often incorporates families into the treatment. The roles for families can be extensive, ranging from helping to develop treatment goals to encouraging children to practise CBT techniques. For younger children, family involvement is critical, as Family CBT is the form of CBT that has shown efficacy with children younger than age eight. For older children, family involvement should also be encouraged where feasible. As well, when family issues impede CBT’s effectiveness, Positive Family Interaction Therapy may be a helpful addition.
  • Reach more children in need by expanding delivery options. Many children can benefit from CBT without ever entering a practitioner’s office. Studies show the effectiveness of telephone- and internet-based CBT equals that of in-person delivery for many children. These delivery modalities also make it possible to reach more children, including those in more remote communities. Internet delivery may also help reduce costs because it requires less practitioner time.
  • Consider medications when CBT does not succeed. Some children continue to experience impairing symptoms, even after an adequate course of CBT. For these children, medications should be considered — particularly fluoxetine and sertraline, given their efficacy and more favourable adverse event profile. Still, children taking either medication need to be carefully monitored to assess both its effectiveness and potential adverse events.

All children diagnosed with OCD need rapid access to CBT. By providing this treatment early in the disorder’s course, associated distress and impairment for children and their families can be greatly contained. For more information, see Vol. 16, No. 1 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.