Help me welcome the wonderful Katie O’Dunne to this week’s Q&A! As you’ll soon learn from Katie herself, she is a dedicated advocate for OCD awareness and how the disorder can affect—and be affected by—a person’s faith. Read more from Katie!
When were you diagnosed with OCD, and how did you first realize it might explain what you’d been experiencing?
Even in my earliest memories, I was consumed by terrifying worries and did everything in my power to alleviate my deepest fears. For instance, I can remember being absolutely plagued by guilt following the death of my aunt to cancer, as I worried that it was somehow the fault of my 8-year-old self. Soon after, I worried constantly that I was somehow a dangerous person. Intrusive thoughts and images flooded my mind at night, as I called my parents into my room to confess every scary thought in order to seek reassurance that I was not a dangerous monster. As I grew older, my fears changed and morphed into every single area that was important to me. By college, I was afraid to go to sleep out of fear that I had left the stove on or the door unlocked. And by graduate school, I was terrified I called individuals derogatory names or wrote horrific things in birthday cards before blocking it out. I managed by checking the stove, taking pictures of the locks, or calling friends to make sure I hadn’t somehow caused harm.
In my early 20s, I learned that I was experiencing symptoms of OCD. I was taking psychology courses and started to recognize some of the symptoms, but I knew very little about the presentation of OCD (and even less about the treatment!). At this point, I was in seminary and doubting absolutely everything…from whether or not I left the candles lit in the chapel in seminary to whether or not I was secretly a horrible monster. And yet, I feared documentation of an official diagnosis would negatively impact my pursuit of ordination. So, I pushed it down and continued to cope by seeking reassurance wherever I could find it, which only made me sicker.
Before you knew you had OCD, what did you think it was? Did your symptoms line up with what you’d been hearing about it?
My symptoms definitely didn’t line up with what I was hearing about, which was that OCD was some “cute quirk.” Ugh…it’s not! While I suspected I had OCD, I definitely didn’t attribute many of my intrusive thoughts to the disorder. By the time I moved into my first role in ministry as a school chaplain, my head was spinning with every worry possible: What if I said something mean to a student in class and forgot about it? What if I kicked the child on crutches? What if I snap and stab someone? What if I’m secretly a murderer and just blocked it out? What if I’m just pretending to be a moral minister and am secretly a horrible person? What if God actually hates me? The entire day swirled with these thoughts, as I supported 2,700 students from different faith traditions through losses, interfaith education, and their own mental health challenges. I felt like I was living two lives: the calm, peaceful, joyful chaplain supporting students…and the life inside my head telling me I deserved absolutely nothing. At my lowest point, I was prepared to call the police on myself to confess to crimes I didn’t commit—just in case they were somehow my fault or I had blocked them out.
And yet, I was one of the fortunate individuals who found evidence-based treatment at this lowest point, after nearly 15 years of symptoms. Engaging in exposure and response prevention (ERP) seemed to oppose every single thing I had done throughout my life. Rather than trying to convince myself I was not, in fact, a sinful, bad, murderous person, the treatment encouraged me to do just the opposite. I had to learn to accept uncertainty in all of its forms. ERP was terrifying for me…but it saved my life.
As a former school chaplain, your faith has played a huge role in your life. How has it affected your experiences with OCD, if at all?
My role in school chaplaincy is honestly what led me to begin telling my story. I spent my entire treatment journey in secret: hiding every obsession and compulsion from those around me. I was terrified that if someone knew the school chaplain was seeking mental health treatment, they would no longer respect me as an ordained minister or as a leader. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
After witnessing many of my students navigate their own mental health struggles—fearful of being open in their faith communities—I felt like I had a responsibility to share my story. I wanted my students from all faith backgrounds (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, humanist, and beyond) to know that they could authentically engage in their faith practices while seeking evidence-based treatments. To my surprise, as soon as I began speaking up, families started reaching out to me more (not less!). Almost daily, I heard from families who wanted help authentically talking to their priest, rabbi, or imam about their child’s mental health struggles.
This was a profound moment of faith for me, where I deeply believe the Divine created beauty out of brokenness in my life. Ultimately, this journey of faith led me to help others with what I like to call the trinity of recovery, as they have faith in their treatment, their beautiful traditions, and themselves all at the same time. I deeply believe that once I learned to embrace my own struggles, receive treatment, and become open about my identity as a minister navigating OCD, a space for individuals from all faiths to share their individual struggles with me was organically (or perhaps divinely!) created.
After seven years in school chaplaincy, you’ve now committed to helping individuals navigating faith and OCD full-time. How did you come to that decision? What does that look like for you?
When I began to advocate publicly with the International OCD Foundation, I learned about a subtype of OCD involving an individual’s faith tradition: religious scrupulosity. OCD always latches onto the things most significant to the sufferer, and in this case, an individual’s personal faith becomes OCD’s target. For individuals navigating religious scrupulosity as a subtype of OCD, repetitively and rigidly engaging in faith practices can become debilitating, rather than life-giving. In 2020, I was blessed to begin working with an amazing team of humans at the IOCDF to create Faith & OCD initiatives through an interdisciplinary task force, special interest advocacy groups, annual conferences, and a full web resource.
In doing this work, I began receiving requests to use my knowledge of OCD and interfaith chaplaincy background to help separate faith from OCD in religious scrupulosity cases. I began doing this on a volunteer basis, but the passion and need continued to grow. With the encouragement and support of the IOCDF, beginning in May 2022, I moved out of school chaplaincy to found Faith & Mental Health Integrative Services, an organization helping individuals with OCD and related disorders live into their faith traditions in value-driven ways as they navigate evidence-based treatment.” Tangibly, I consult alongside clinicians on religious scrupulosity cases around the world, lead international scrupulosity support groups, train clinicians in interfaith literacy for ERP, and train faith leaders in the understanding of scrupulosity. My entire life is that of an interfaith clinical chaplain specializing in OCD, which is fulfilling beyond anything I could have possibly imagined! My biggest joy is working on care teams to help individuals across faith traditions reconnect with their traditions in value-driven ways not dictated by their OCD.
I am also working on my Doctor of Ministry in Integrative Chaplaincy at Vanderbilt, where I am focusing my research on reimagining ERP as a spiritual practice across faith traditions. Ultimately, I hope to use this work and the model I’m developing to train other faith leaders as clinical chaplains specializing in OCD/religious scrupulosity to work alongside clinicians.
And yet, my biggest call is to inspire and empower others to use their voices within their own houses of worship. I am filled with joy when I see individuals across faith traditions sharing their stories. For anyone who would like to get involved in advocacy/work around faith and OCD or running 50 ultramarathons in 50 states for OCD (another topic for another day!) reach out to me anytime.
You were recently featured in the first commercials about OCD! What was your role, and what was the goal of the commercials?
This was truly the biggest joy! I loved working with my amazing fiance Ethan Smith and with Biohaven throughout the process. I worked on two separate commercials with the opportunity to see both from start to finish, as Ethan developed the entire creative vision before writing/directing each commercial! In one, we literally show our lives flashing by while OCD research remains stagnant. And in the other, we seek to transform uncertainty from terrifying what if’s to beautiful possibilities. Ultimately, the goal is to raise awareness for OCD while sharing information about an amazing clinical trial seeking to develop the first new medication for OCD since the 1990s. Participating in each commercial, sharing my story, and directing the testimonials was beautiful beyond my wildest dreams!
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone with OCD, what would it be?
Ahh! There is so much I would like to share, but I’ll leave it with this: I would like to remind everyone that it’s time to be more afraid of giving up your life to OCD than all of the scary stuff coming true. Because regardless of what OCD says, you deserve a big, beautiful, awesome, amazing life.