Having OCD is not a joke and it's time we stopped treating it as such

Joking about OCD is no laughing matter [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]
Joking about OCD is no laughing matter [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]

“Oh he’s just a little bit OCD”.

“Sorry, it’s my OCD coming out.”

Sound familiar?

Most of us would admit to occasionally dropping a light-hearted reference to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, even if we don’t actually suffer from it. But having OCD is not a joke. And it’s time we stopped treating it as such.

Case in point the most recent issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, who, in the US edition, published a feature on staying healthy while travelling, which advised readers to ‘be a little OCD’.

Internet users were quick to respond. “Be a little OCD” ?! Really @goodhousemag Its not an adjective and educate yourselves,” one woman tweeted.

“Avoid danger by ‘being a little cancerous!’ Would you ever recommend that? No? Then why OCD?” added another.

To be fair to the writer, she likely didn’t mean to mock people who have a mental illness, but the move is symptomatic of how society views the condition.

According to Dr Alberto Pertusa, a Consultant Psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital, in some cases OCD can be so severe it can affect the person’s life to the point of constant distress.

“The symptoms can be extremely debilitating and prevent the person from living a normal life,” he explains. “They can also lead to suicide in the context long-standing desperation and associated hopelessness if the symptoms do not improve over time.”

Which is clearly no laughing matter.

There's more to OCD than cleanliness. [Kaboompics/Karolina via Pexels]
There’s more to OCD than cleanliness [Kaboompics/Karolina via Pexels]

Dr Pertusa describes OCD as a mental condition where a person experiences thoughts that are distressing, intrusive and unwelcome. These are called obsessions.

“In order to alleviate the anxiety caused by these thoughts the person feels an urge to carry out repetitive actions – these are called compulsions,” he explains.

“The range of potential obsessions and compulsions a person with OCD can experience is very wide, but many people with OCD tend to experience obsessions related to dirt and contamination, or feel a need to check things repeatedly (such as door locks or plug sockets), due to fear that something bad may happen if they didn’t do these things properly.”

Although the cause of OCD is unknown, Dr Pertusa explains that genetics likely play a role. “We also know that some environmental factors can play a role,” he explains.

“We know that people with OCD can have abnormal activity in some parts of the brain, which can lead to improper valuation of behaviours as well as other OCD-related difficulties.”

And the condition is much more common than you might think. According to the mental health charity Mind, OCD affects an estimated 1.2 per cent of the population in the UK.

“OCD is a serious anxiety disorder that can have a detrimental impact on everyday life, including someone’s ability to leave the house, yet is frequently misunderstood,” explains Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind.

This miscomprehension, in particular that OCD is always linked to cleanliness, as emphasised by the GH mishap, is a real concern because it can stop people being accurately diagnosed.

“OCD has two main parts – obsessions and compulsion,” he continues. “Obsessions are repeated unwelcome thoughts, such as thinking you have been contaminated by dirt and germs or that someone you love is in danger. Compulsions are repetitive activities that you feel you have to do to relieve the stress caused by the obsessive thoughts you have, such as repeatedly washing your hands, or turning lights on and off a certain number of times. Compulsions experienced by people with OCD do not always involve cleaning – they vary from person to person,” Stephen Buckley explains.

It's time to rethink the language we use surrounding mental health [Demeter Attila via Pexels]
It’s time to rethink the language we use surrounding mental health [Demeter Attila via Pexels]

Mind recommends that if anyone is concerned that they might be experiencing a mental health problem such as OCD they should speak to someone they know and trust and go to your GP who can talk you through the support that’s available.

“Although speaking to your GP might seem daunting, it’s the first step to getting the help and support that’s right for you. Mind’s ‘Find the Words’ guide gives advice on how to speak to your GP about mental health for the first time,” Stephen Buckley says.

And there are a number of treatments available if you are diagnosed for the condition.

“What works for one person may not be right for someone else,” he explains. “Most people will find the best way to manage their mental health is a combination of talking therapies, medication, and other self-management techniques such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and a strong network of family and friends.”

So though it might seem a tad over sensitive to call people out when they describe themselves as a ‘bit OCD’, or using OCD as a way to give props to someone’s cleaning ability, when you understand just how serious a condition it might be, it becomes a lot more understandable why people who are suffering might be upset.

Thankfully, it seems Good Housekeeping has seen the error of its ways and one of the editors has now apologised for the error, which is a huge step in the right direction.

The magazine is by no means the only one guilty of using throwaway comments about OCD and other mental health conditions, so to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s all try to have a little more consideration about the language we’re using when it comes to mental health.

Because OCD, and other conditions like it, aren’t life hacks or the butt of jokes about cleanliness – they’re serious mental health disorders that deserve to be treated as so.

Mind’s Making it Happen manifesto is what the charity want to see from the next government to improve the lives of people with mental health problems.

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