Dear Thelma: My once-happy daughter is now paranoid and depressed

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Dear Thelma,

My daughter, who will turn 15 this year, brings much joy to our family due to her kindness, happy-go-lucky and helpful attitude – and we love her very much. She is also well-liked by all her teachers and peers.

But since the beginning of this year, she is no longer the same.

I’m a homemaker and spend most of the time with her. We were very close and talked about everything, until lately when we started having so many arguments. This has never happened before and is really stressing me out.

The cause of this change in her is when, one fine day, my daughter discovered her beloved daddy did not wash his hands after going to the toilet. Her character changed dramatically after that.

She started avoiding her daddy who loves her very much, and would keep to herself. She developed a funny way of walking so that her body/ clothes would not touch the walls/ doors that her daddy has walked past. Also, she started frequently washing her hands and constantly wipes everything that her daddy has touched. She started wearing long pants.

She refuses to lean on the car seats, and has a stiff sitting posture whenever she is in her daddy’s car. She won't even sit on a particular seat if her daddy has left something on it.

Her too frequent handwashing and sanitising has caused both her hands to turn red and wrinkly.

Recently, she and her friends took an online “psychology test” after being recommended by a close friend, and her “result” was Severe Depression and Moderate Anxiety. Regardless of whether this is accurate or not, I’m taking it seriously and am monitoring her daily behaviour as I’m afraid she might have negative thoughts.

I’m really stressed out. I've tried the soft and the stern approach, hoping she will “awake” and see things in a more positive way. After all, the “incident” was not a big deal although she just couldn’t take it.

I’m seriously worried that if a small thing like this could bother her so much, what will happen when she faces more challenging matters in future. This has not only affected my relationship with her but also her relationship with her brother and father.

I keep telling her to get rid of the bad thoughts in her mind and move on.

I sincerely hope to receive your professional advise to rescue my lovely daughter before it is too late. Thank you.

Worried mother

Dear Worried Mother,

Thank you for writing in. I appreciate you must be very worried at this radical change in your daughter. What you describe sounds like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that centres around a fear of contamination.

Thankfully, if I'm correct, it can be treated.

OCD is where people become extremely anxious about a certain issue, typically contamination, straight lines, order or a very fixed way of doing something such as checking incessantly.

This is not the casual enjoyment some people get from hanging pictures correctly or rearranging their sock drawer by colour – untreated OCD is a very frightening condition that seriously impacts on a person's daily life.

Very often, people who have OCD know that they aren't thinking rationally but they can't help themselves.

OCD is a medical issue and it requires professional help to manage.

The roots of OCD are not well understood. It's often related to anxiety and depression as well as trauma. And it is definitely something to do with the way the brain functions.

In the pandemic, people are frightened, routines are upset, and this has led to an increase in stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, including OCD.

For treatment, your first step has to be a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specialises in mental health issues. She will diagnose your daughter (only a medical doctor may diagnose, in Malaysia) and you can discuss whether or not this is a case for medication.

You will also have to discuss some talk therapy. Although a psychiatrist can do this, it's more common to talk to a psychologist or other non-medical mental health practitioner. For helping people manage OCD, the talk therapy treatment most often recommended is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

With CBT, the therapist will help your daughter sort out her triggers, and help her model healthy behaviour. She will also need to learn and practise some calming routines to manage her anxiety. You can do this online or face-to-face.

As your girl is 15, you may want to attend a bit of a session with her so you can help her with her homework, however, as she will have a big burden of guilt and fear, also allow her to pour her heart out in private. Pick a therapist who is warm and affirming. Your daughter is likely quite frightened by her illness.

Now, a word about you and your husband. Please know that this has nothing to do with your parenting, with your daughter's character, or with how you live. Getting OCD is like breaking a bone – it's just one of those things that happens. There is no blame here. None.

Also, your daughter's OCD focused on Dad but please understand that is pure chance. It equally might have focused on the kitchen sink, door handles, cutlery, anything made of paper – OCD is random. It just kicks in and there's no logic to it.

Having said that, guilt is a dreadful emotion and a very illogical one. So please lean in with your husband and reassure each other. Do things you love together, be there for each other.

And reassure your daughter that this is simply an illness. She needs to hear that you love her, that Dad loves her, that this issue is a treatable health problem and that there is no blame at all. None.

As for your son, I am not sure how old he is, but be sure to involve him in this, and to settle any fears or concerns he has.

Also, while I hope your friends and family are sensible, there are people who love to blame victims for their illness. You may want to practise shutting these types down.

A polite way is a blank stare followed by an incredulous,"You are blaming us for an illness??? Really?" followed by a shake of the head that shows your deep pity for them and walking away.

I hope this helps and that your daughter is better again soon.

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