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Everything you thought you knew about OCD is wrong

How the portrayal of OCD in the media is harmful to mental health

A woman wearing yellow cleaning gloves, cleaning a bathroom mirror with a white duster
Karolina Grabowska -

Have you ever heard someone say they're so OCD about the way their house looks? Or someone who likes to keep things clean being labelled as OCD? The truth is, this ideology is incredibly ignorant.

The way OCD is represented in the media has contributed to this misconceived idea of what OCD actually is. Take Monica, for example, in the popular TV show Friends, played by Courtney Cox. Her character is obsessively cleaning and tidying and has rules about eating over the sink to avoid crumbs. She as a smaller vacuum to clean her normal vacuum, and wishes she had a smaller one to clean that one. She struggles to sleep one night due to her constant thoughts about needing to tidy up, which is used for a "quirky" storyline that gets laughs. This mental health disorder is used for humour, as if it’s so outrageous that anyone could realistically feel like that, but they can. And this is only one example of a myriad of ways in which OCD can manifest itself.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not just about being excessively clean; it is a mental health disorder that relates to having recurring obsessive and unwanted thoughts that cause anxiety; these thoughts can often be incredibly distressing, uncomfortable, and frightening and are difficult to banish from your mind. They can include

  • thoughts that you have harmed someone without knowing,

  • that someone you love is in danger,

  • fears of contamination or illness,

  • unwanted violent and sexual thoughts and many more.

As well as these thoughts, OCD can also involve compulsions which are actions that are done in order to relieve this anxiety. This can include but is not limited to,

  • excessive cleanliness,

  • repeated actions such as counting

  • following rituals,

  • or needing constant reassurance from others in order to manage the intrusive thought.

How does this affect people?

Research shows that almost 750,000 people in the UK, and on average between 1 and 3% of the world’s population suffer from OCD. It can take over your daily life and cause you to struggle with handling normal day-to-day activities. Obsessions and compulsions can come at any time, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

It also carries a lot of shame and embarrassment, as people who struggle with OCD can believe that the thoughts that they are having are indicative of how they think and feel about something. THIS IS NOT TRUE. These thoughts can be completely random and intrusive and are there to cause disgust and anxiety. Due to the unruly nature of obsessive thoughts, people are apprehensive to get help as they don’t want to admit their thoughts to anyone.

It can be very difficult to spot in a person as they might be well versed in hiding their emotions and will not frequently share their obsessive thoughts. Equally, you might not even be able to notice someone's compulsions as these could be covert and done in secret to avoid anyone seeing.

Why is changing people’s ideas of OCD important?

First and foremost, it helps raise awareness for what OCD can look like. In turn, this could help people acknowledge that this is what they are struggling with and know that this is something that they can get help for. A person could be struggling with OCD and will pass it off as something else. They could have people telling them they’re “just a worrier” or “always so organised” when their worries could be obsessions and organisation could be their compulsion. It is imperative to raise awareness for a mental health problem that people might not know a lot about – we all know raising awareness saves lives!

Secondly, awareness and understanding of OCD can change people’s ideas of what it is and reduce the judgement that people might have. Being understood will help people feel less shameful and embarrassed about their mental health, helping to make them more comfortable to open up to others and get any help that they require.

It could also reduce the stigma around it and stop it being the butt of a joke in media representation or being thrown around in a very casual way. People can say that they’re “OCD” about certain things when they like to be neat and tidy or like to eat their meal in a certain way; this can be hurtful to people suffering from OCD as it could make them feel like what they experience is the same as someone who might shower slightly more frequently than others. It diminishes the constant torture that OCD sufferers can go through daily, and this kind of mindset can be harmful to people’s journey to recovery.

Lastly, awareness can help the people around a person suffering with OCD to be more patient and understanding in knowing what they need to help them.

If you think you have OCD:

The first step is, don’t be ashamed. A lot of people experience OCD and there is nothing to be embarrassed about. It's so important to look after your mental health and be aware of what help you can get. If you are worried about this, contact your GP to enquire about seeking help, or equally you could access therapy privately to help you to talk through your worrying thoughts.

Remember, there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can do this!


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