A new ultrabrief screening scale for pediatric OCD


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects 1-2% of the population. The disorder is characterized by recurrent intrusive unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that cause significant distress and anxiety, and behavioral or mental rituals (compulsions) that are performed to reduce distress stemming from obsessions. OCD may onset at any time in life, but most commonly begins in childhood or in early adulthood.

Dr. Amitai Abramovitch, clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist based in Austin, Texas, and an associate professor at Texas State University

Dr. Amitai Abramovitch

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention is an empirically based and highly effective treatment for OCD. However, most youth with OCD do not receive any treatment, which is related to a shortage of mental health care providers with expertise in assessment and treatment of the disorder, and misdiagnosis of the disorder is all too prevalent.

Dr. Jonathan S. Abramowitz, director of clinical training in the Anxiety and Stress Lab at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr. Jonathan S. Abramowitz

Aside from the subjective emotional toll associated with OCD, individuals living with this disorder frequently experience interpersonal, academic, and vocational impairments. Nevertheless, OCD is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. This may be more pronounced in youth with OCD, particularly in primary health care settings and large nonspecialized medical institutions. In fact, research indicates that pediatric OCD is often underrecognized even among mental health professionals. This situation is not new, and in fact the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the United Kingdom stated that there is an urgent need to develop brief reliable screeners for OCD nearly 20 years ago.

Dr. Dean McKay, professor of psychology at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

Dr. Dean McKay

Although there were several attempts to develop brief screening scales for adults and youth with OCD, none of them were found to be suitable for use as rapid screening tools in nonspecialized settings. One of the primary reasons is that OCD is associated with different “themes” or dimensions. For example, a child with OCD may engage in cleaning rituals because the context (or dimension) of their obsessions is contamination concerns. Another child with OCD, who may suffer from similar overall symptom severity, may primarily engage in checking rituals which are related with obsessions associated with fear of being responsible for harm. Therefore, one child with OCD may score very high on items assessing one dimension (e.g., contamination concerns), but very low on another dimension (e.g., harm obsessions).

This results in a known challenge in the assessment and psychometrics of self-report (as opposed to clinician administered) measures of OCD. Secondly, development of such measures requires very large carefully screened samples of individuals with OCD, with other disorders, and those without a known psychological disorder – which may be more challenging than requiring adult participants.

In order to address the urgent need for an ultrabrief measure for youth with OCD, we formed an international collaboration with the goal of developing a reliable ultrabrief self-report screening scale for this population. To accomplish this, we harmonized data from several sites that included three samples of carefully screened youths with OCD, with other disorders, and without known disorders who completed multiple self-report questionnaires, including the 21-item Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory – Child Version (OCI-CV).

Utilizing psychometric analyses including factor analyses, invariance analyses, and item response theory methodologies, we were able to develop an ultrabrief measure extracted from the OCI-CV: the 5-item Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory – Child Version (OCI-CV-5). This very brief self-report measure was found to have very good psychometric properties including a sensitive and specific clinical cutoff score. Youth who score at or above the cutoff score are nearly 21 times more likely to meet criteria for OCD.

This measure corresponds to a need to rapidly screen for OCD in children in nonspecialized settings, including community mental health clinics, primary care settings, and pediatric treatment facilities. However, it is important to note it is not a diagnostic measure. The measure is intended to identify youth who should be referred to a mental health care professional to conduct a diagnostic interview.

Dr. Abramovitch is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist based in Austin, Tex., and an associate professor at Texas State University. Dr. Abramowitz is professor and director of clinical training in the Anxiety and Stress Lab at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. McKay is professor of psychology at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

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