“I’ll do the PowerPoint presentation for the group assignment because I’m a little OCD.”
“My study notes are colour coded; I’m so OCD.”
“You’re going to write an article about OCD? I swear I have that…I’m such a perfectionist.”
These sayings are a norm on campus. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has become interchangeable with perfectionism, attention to detail, and cleanliness. It manifests in the endearing quirk of eating MnMs in the colour order of the rainbow or wearing lucky socks before exams.
But what about the constant rumination of repetitive, disturbing, intrusive thoughts? An irrational, yet tangible, fear of everyday objects and tasks? What about endless anxiety and attempting to seek reassurance from others that a perceived threat is not genuine? Engaging in compulsive behaviours to neutralise anxieties of future harm? Not so endearing anymore. These are the debilitating symptoms of OCD. Psychotherapist Jon Hershfield defines OCD as a “disorder of internal discomfort” which hijacks the brain and robs a person of their sense of control for more than an hour daily. Around 2% of the world population suffers from this chronic disorder, with OCD ranked as the tenth leading cause of disability by the World Health Organisation in 2018.
A 2016 study by medical researchers at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute revealed that OCD sufferers are ten times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The number of OCD sufferers at USyd remains unclear. There is no available data on the number of students with specific mental health diagnoses.
The reality of OCD as a mental illness remains far removed from the image promoted of it. OCD is not occasionally wondering whether the stove was left on. While some symptoms resemble the stereotypes associated with OCD, such as excessive hand-washing, the majority of stereotypes skew the reality of this debilitating mental illness.
Portia Gooch, a third year Psychology student at USyd and diagnosed OCD survivor, illuminates the difference between stereotypes and reality when it comes to a friend’s desperate need to organise her desk in a specific order.
“For her, the idea of studying outside these specific conditions is unfortunate, at best,” Portia says, “but for an individual with OCD whose obsessions revolve around this need to make things right, this failure to perform their compulsions would result in excruciating anxiety that something terrible would happen as a result.”
“It feels like your life is on the line every single day, and that much more is at stake than just the way you’ve organised your stationery.”
Labelling personality quirks as OCD perpetuates false stereotypes, belittling this mental illness. Thus, these comments misrepresent the dark, agonising, and debilitating monster of OCD as something positive everyone should strive for, and ultimately something to be proud of.
But is this harmful? Does it really matter whether OCD is painted with blacks and blues or with pinks and yellows if people are still admiring the canvas? Although founded on erroneous assumptions, the minimisation of OCD’s harms is far from detrimental, because the use of its stereotyped and mainstream meaning sparks conversations about this mental illness, raising awareness in the process.
The real harm of such language is unfortunately obvious. Awareness and conversation which originate from misinformed stereotypes place the burden of emotional labour on survivors to correct such tropes.
These comments distort OCD and disempower its survivors by making light of a mental illness. For students, downplaying OCD’s effects is inherently harmful as it denies or at least deters OCD survivors from accessing USyd’s support services, including Disability Services and Counselling & Psychological Services (CAPS). The trivialisation of OCD makes sufferers hesitate and self-question their own condition, amplifying fears that their OCD will not be taken as seriously as other mental illnesses.
This perception is echoed by Portia who only engaged with Disability Services in her third year.
“I always held a perception that the program wasn’t designed for people like me,” Portia says, “as I’m mostly high functioning and push myself even when I’m not.” However, as Portia discloses, this “push yourself attitude has worsened my mental health long-term,” revealing the necessity for these students to access these services and gain specialised support.
For them to do so requires the support of those around them. This support is directly undermined by language which is dismissive, distracting and unhelpful.
Since engaging with Disability Services, Portia has created an Academic Plan, allowing for increased flexibility in her studies. An OCD specialist at CAPS also helped guide her through treatment.The simplification of OCD distorts its true status as a mental illness, barring students from accessing support from family and peers when they need it.
The ensuing silence contributes to stigmatisation, isolating survivors. Sufferers withhold their mental illness to avoid friends or family bringing “preconceived notions of what OCD involves to the conversation,” Portia says. As Portia recalls, her diagnosis of OCD was initially confusing for her family due to their lack of knowledge about what OCD actually entailed.
“I am messy, don’t care that much for organisation, and didn’t show any overt compulsions like handwashing or flipping light switches. It didn’t make sense.”
Trivialisation reduces OCD to totalising stereotypes of perfectionism and cleanliness, preventing students from identifying lesser known forms of OCD, thereby delaying their diagnosis.
Obsessions surrounding socially “taboo” themes, such as violence or sex often fly under the radar. For example, individuals that experience sexual obsessions often worry they are “sexually perverted,” rather than suffering from OCD, and are frightened to seek help according to Hershfield’s 2015 study.
Due to the incongruity between widely-discussed symptoms of OCD and her individual experiences, Portia struggled to identify her symptoms as OCD.
“It wasn’t until I scoured the internet for hours that I recognised that I didn’t have to be clean or organised to have OCD.”
Trivialising OCD is an understandable mistake which arises from a deficit in understanding and a blurring of the line between a debilitating mental illness and personality quirks. “Opening any dialogue around OCD and mental illness is a really positive step,” Portia tells me. But if OCD is going to be discussed, it needs to be discussed properly.
The utilisation of OCD as a “badge of honour” of cleanliness and organisation ought to cease. Comparisons between the experiences of perfectionism and the debilitating experiences of OCD survivors must be eradicated.Trivialisation needs to be called out for what it truly is: the source of much stigma and stereotype for OCD sufferers.