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Sharing success

Support groups help people live a healthier life

By Dana Setterholm and Christie Vogt

April 3, 2007

Several years ago, Sherre Rinkenberger was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It's a challenge she shares with about one in 50 people; for them, constant obsessions and compulsions can make everyday life a nightmare. Remember Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good as It Gets?" He had OCD.

People with OCD can be paralyzed by fear of germs, fires, break-ins, and disease, or that harm will come to them or their loved ones. To manage those fears, they'll engage in rituals like obsessively checking the door locks, frequent hand washing, or not stepping on cracks. They want control because to them, control equals safety.

But that control is an illusion, and the only way to really handle those fears is through therapy. So Rinkenberger came to the U's Psychiatry Clinic and joined a 10-week program run by Chris Donahue, assistant psychiatry professor. The best therapy for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), also called exposure therapy, where the client is increasingly exposed to what frightens him or her. The other important component to treatment is support groups.

"OCD is a very secretive thing," says Donohue. "It can be embarrassing, and people may go to great lengths to hide it. Increasing awareness can help others to come out and seek treatment, and that's very valuable."

"We try to get [people with OCD] to stop all ritualizing--that's the ultimate goal of the therapy," says Donahue. But, he continues, "a support group can help to maintain progress and [allow members] to share success stories."

Rinkenberger took her positive experience at the U back to the OCD therapy group at the Mental Health Center in St. Cloud. She obtained a grant for the group, which has paid for a laptop to find information on the latest OCD research, and a workbook for dealing with OCD, which group members read and discuss during meetings. "We're really branching out to find lots of resources out there that we didn't know about," Rinkenberger says.

Her grant proposal also included a plan to increase awareness of OCD. "I went to St. Cloud State University and talked to social work students about what it's like to have OCD," she says. "And we want to do something like that in the [St. Cloud area] schools."

Donahue agrees about the importance of increased awareness. Living with OCD is often a balancing act--struggling to handle the effects and simultaneously striving to conceal them. "OCD is a very secretive thing," he says. "It can be embarrassing, and people may go to great lengths to hide it. Increasing awareness can help others to come out and seek treatment, and that's very valuable." And having the opportunity speak openly in an accepting environment can lessen fears.

The University's clinic also recognizes the valuable effects of support groups for other challenges people have and continues to develop additional resources for the community. Donahue is currently working with Jon Grant, associate professor of psychiatry, and his assistant Brian Odlaug to develop a support group for problem gamblers. "This group would be for patients that have completed our cognitive behavioral therapy program or had participated in Jon Grant's CBT for pathological gambling study," says Donahue. With impulse control problems like gambling, Donahue believes that "individuals need the one-to-one therapy concurrent with or prior to the support group." The group for problem gamblers would focus on relapse prevention and maintenance of progress, he says.

To learn more about the U's Psychiatry Clinic and how practitioners help people live a more normal life, visit its Web site.

Further reading:

Possible relief for obsessive compulsive disorder

Eyeing a virtual cure for anxiety disorders

U researchers test pill for gambling addiction