Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a commonly stigmatized and misunderstood mental illness.
OCD Awareness Week is an internationally recognized week of advocacy and a promotion of understanding surrounding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and other disorders on the Obsessive-Compulsive spectrum. It was started by the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) in 2009 and has been conducted every year since then during the second week of October. A number of U.S.-based organizations and others worldwide have celebrations this week, hosting events such as documentary screenings, fundraisers or lectures.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a highly stigmatized mental health condition. We’ve all heard it, and maybe even said it — “I’m so OCD!” — without thinking about how trivializing and embarrassing it is for people who actually live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. OCD isn’t just feeling uncomfortable when something is out of place, or feeling like a perfectionist over a piece of art or writing. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is much more serious, and for some people, life-ruining.
So, what is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? From the IOCDF: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life, and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions.” and although many of us may get caught in such a cycle at some point in our lives, “that does not mean that we all have ‘some OCD.’” In order for someone to be diagnosed with OCD, “this cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes so extreme that it… gets in the way of important activities that the person values.”
Obsessions in OCD refer to unwanted or intrusive thoughts, images or urges that are disturbing to the person. These obsessions cause uncomfortable feelings of doubt, fear, disgust or anxiety. These obsessions occur all the time, over and over again, leading the person to believe that they have no control over their obsessions. According to the IOCDF, “Common obsessions can include contamination, losing control, perfectionism, harm coming to others due to negligence, unwanted sexual or violent thoughts [and] religious obsessions.”
The second half of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, compulsions, are more readily what comes to mind when people tend to think about the disorder. The IOCDF explains: “Compulsions are excessive, repetitive behaviors or ‘mental acts’ (e.g., thought suppression, counting, praying, etc.) that a person uses to try to neutralize or make their obsessions or distress go away.” People with OCD usually have the insight that their compulsions are an irrational reaction, and only provide temporary relief. Some of the most common compulsions found in individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are “frequent, excessive washing and/or cleaning, frequent, excessive checking (e.g. that the door is locked, that the oven is off, etc.), repeating, mental compulsions… and avoiding situations that may trigger their obsessions.”
So, now that we’ve recognized that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a real mental health condition and not just exaggerated perfectionism, let’s look at some stats:
• Patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
(Karolinska Institutet, 2016)
• It takes an average of 14 to 17 years from the time that OCD symptoms begin for individuals to obtain the appropriate
treatment. (International OCD Foundation, 2010)
• Studies indicate that approximately 75 percent of patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder have at least one
comorbid psychiatric condition. (All India Institute of Medical Sciences, 2017)
Those are pretty harrowing and prove why it is necessary for us to work hard to end stigma surrounding OCD and related conditions. If less than 10 percent of individuals living with OCD are receiving treatment, we can safely assume that at least a portion of that remaining 90 percent refuses to seek treatment as a result of the stigma. No one wants to be labelled as “crazy.” The trivialization of the condition through “I’m so OCD” and similar sayings can cause a great deal of discomfort and shame for people who actually live with the condition — another reason why they may not seek treatment.
For more information about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I encourage you to visit the International OCD Foundation’s website at iocdf.org. In addition, Headstrong, TU’s mental health advocacy and awareness organization, will be hosting an OCD Q&A on Oct. 18 with special guest Alicia Urban, coordinator for the Little Blue House. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about OCD, the ways that stigma and trivialization are harmful and to ask any questions you might have about OCD. Snacks will be provided.
So the next time you want to characterize yourself or someone else as “so OCD,” please reconsider. The more than 2.2 million Americans living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder will thank you for it.