How We've Come To Misunderstand Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and What It Really Means To Have OCD
CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.
Right now, mental health awareness is on the rise, with activists working hard to educate others on mental illnesses, and correct previous misconceptions and societal stereotypes. However, OCD is still largely misunderstood.
OCD and Misconceptions
Obsessive compulsive disorder is defined by two charactersitics: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are the intrusive thoughts which distress the individual, and compulsions are the rituals that are completed in an attempt to ‘satisfy’ the intrusive thought.
OCD can take on a variety of forms, often referred to as ‘themes’. The themes are the ways that OCD manifests in an individual, but none of these themes need to be present in order to have OCD. Common themes are:
However, the societal stereotype of OCD is understood as perfectionism, or a fear of contamination (or both). While these can both be manifestations of OCD, neither of these traits are necessary to be diagnosed with the disorder.
The stereotypical person living with OCD would be expected to live in a clean, organised home, paying strict attention to personal hygiene. This is not always the case. It can be surprising to learn that for many people with OCD, life is completely opposite to this expectation - there is an association between obsessive compulsive disorder and hoarding. Misconceptions about OCD can make it difficult to talk about living with the disorder since symptoms are so often misunderstood.
One of the biggest culprits of spreading misconceptions around OCD is television. Of course, having representation for characters with mental illnesses is important, but often, the portrayals aren’t accurate. Comedies often rely on stereotyped characters for punchlines, and OCD is just one of many characteristics exploited in this way.
There are two typical caricatures of OCD, germaphobes and perfectionists, and both of these can be seen in popular sitcoms: Sheldon Cooper and Monica Geller. While neither of these characters are said to have OCD within the shows they feature in, it has been generally accepted by audiences, and their behaviours align with the stereotypes of OCD.
The Big Bang Theory uses Sheldon’s OCD mostly as a punchline, depicting his aversion to touch and fear of contamination as a quirk to be laughed at. However, one episode (The Closure Alternative) treats his symptoms more sympathetically, giving him a series of tasks to relieve his compulsive need for closure, similar to the way that exposure therapy aims to alleviate compulsions.
In Friends, Monica’s perfectionist attitude is, much like Sheldon's fear of contamination, used as a punchline. Her extreme organisation is laughed at even by her friends. While perfectionism and organisation are not as explicitly linked to obsessive compulsive disorder as societal stereotypes assume, Monica’s need for things to be exact aligns with the uncertainty and symmetry OCD themes.
Social Media and Mental Illness
There’s a tendency for social media to romanticise mental illnesses, spreading misconceptions about the conditions in the process. With OCD, much of the misinformation comes from the perfectionist stereotype.
There are countless videos and accounts dedicated to ‘satisfying your OCD’ that play into the perfectionist stereotype. They often involve colour coding and lining up objects neatly - staple images of the OCD caricature.
These stereotypes can be harmful for people who suffer with OCD, as people assume their symptoms (when they align with societal expectations of OCD) are just quirks, however in reality, for people with OCD, compulsions need to be carried out in order to relieve the distress of repeated intrusive thoughts which often convince them that if compulsions are not completed, something bad will happen as a result.
Not only this, but many people with OCD don’t have themes that relate to OCD stereotypes. Explaining a theme like religious OCD in a culture which understands the disorder as a need for cleanliness and orderliness can be difficult, resulting in further stigmatisation - if you don’t fit the stereotypical OCD sufferer, there can be doubts that you even have the disorder.
Between the romanticisation of mental illness, and the misconceptions surrounding OCD in particular, social media seems to be a harmful place for those that live with the disorder.
However, social media isn’t all bad. Some accounts use their platform to document their mental health journey, or share uplifting content to show their audience they aren’t alone.
These Instagram accounts are run by people who have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and share informative and uplifting content for fellow OCD sufferers.
Ocddoodles regularly shares doodles to inform their audience about symptoms of OCD, in particular, dispelling OCD myths. The doodles also depict their feelings about their own experience of the disorder, and their journey of recovery. The account is partnered with NOCD, an online therapy app designed to track and ease symptoms of OCD, and to connect patients with therapists.
The_ocdproject aims to break the stigma surrounding obsessive compulsive disorder. They share educational infographics and personal stories of living with OCD. The account doesn’t shy away from discussing setbacks in OCD recovery and the complicated feelings that come with recovery, like feeling guilty for having less severe symptoms than usual.
Desperatesummerss is an account run by Gennie Summers. They share videos documenting their experience with religious and contamination OCD, as well as a series explaining different OCD themes to educate their audience. Their content leans further towards relating to others living with OCD than informing a wider audience.
While there are still many misconceptions about obsessive compulsive disorder, activists are working hard to dispel the myths and educate the public on the realities of living with OCD, to reduce the stigma around the disorder.