Advancing Research on OCD Among African-American Youth and Young Adults

H. Willis

Excerpt from the International OCD Foundation Blog written by Henry Willis, MA about research studying OCD in Black youth and young adults.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is understudied among African-American/Black youth and young adults (Williams & Jahn, 2016). Black youth are also grossly underrepresented in treatment centers, clinical trials, and published research focused on OCD (Williams et al., 2012). Research suggests that although OCD is a persistent problem for Black youth relative to their White American counterparts, we don’t know enough about the sociocultural factors unique to Black youth that may influence OCD symptoms (Williams & Jahn, 2016). “Sociocultural factors” refer to the common social and cultural experiences, patterns, and beliefs that influence the lives of a population group. A lack of understanding of the sociocultural factors that shape the development of OCD, combined with the underrepresentation of African Americans in research, are important problems because if not addressed, efforts to understand and treat OCD, and meet the needs of Black youth with OCD, will be misguided and uninformed.

Two critical sociocultural factors that may influence OCD symptom severity and distress      are racial discrimination (being treated differently on the basis of one’s race (Jones, 2000)), which can be harmful or a “risk factor,” and racial identity (the meaning of race in one’s own ideas about themselves (i.e., Sellers et al., 1998)), which can be helpful or “protective.” Racial discrimination is a source of stress for African Americans and may further increase the frequency of OCD symptoms and distress. Racial identity beliefs (i.e., feeling proud about being Black or African American, having a strong sense of connection to your racial-ethnic group, etc.) are also an important protective factor against psychological distress among African Americans (Smith & Silva, 2011), and they may protect against the development/severity of OCD among this group. 

In light of these gaps in knowledge, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill*, led by Henry A. Willis, have been conducting a study that assesses OCD symptoms, along with sociocultural risk and protective factors (e.g., racial discrimination experiences and racial identity beliefs), during the transition to adulthood within a diverse sample of Black young adults. This study is following participants over a one-year period to explore how OCD changes over time as a result of these factors, and will also be exploring the impact of stress related to COVID-19. More importantly, this study is investigating how racial identity beliefs contribute to resiliency among Black youth, specifically by measuring how racial identity beliefs protect against the development of OCD symptoms, the mental health effects of experiencing racial discrimination, and other stressors. Our early data and previous studies (i.e., Willis & Neblett, 2018) suggest that distress from obsessive-compulsive (OC) symptoms increases as a result of racial discrimination, and that certain patterns of racial identity beliefs protect against racial discrimination and are linked to lower OC symptom distress as a result.


Reference: International OCD Foundation Blog (2021)