Mind Your Words: OCD Stigmatization From Normalization

Take one: Sitting at one of the lunch tables, I noticed a group of girls building a house of cards. They’re almost done with it when it topples. The cards scattered across the table and floor creating a sea of jacks, queens, hearts and spades. Mimicking the cards, the girls’ smiles began to fall except for one, who laughed and said, “Oh no, my OCD is kicking in.” As she moved her hair out of her face and proceeded to pick up the scattered cards, they all laughed along, without a second thought.

Take two: While talking to one of my friends in the hallway, waiting in line for class to begin, I noticed this boy standing in front of me. Well, no. Actually, I noticed that his tag was out and my first instinct was to tuck it in for him. After doing so, he turned around and smiled saying, “Thanks. Are you OCD about that?” Puzzled, I forced a smile and turned away.

Take three: Before taking a test, I placed my pencil on the desk and waited for the papers to be distributed. The boy next to me placed his three pencils parallel to one another with equal distance between them. I thought, it looks cooler that way. This girl passing by his desk noticed it as well. Shaking her head she said, “You’re so OCD”. He furrowed his eyebrows and turned to me, as if I could offer an explanation. I shrugged.

Many people may be able to relate to the aforementioned conversations and perhaps have found themselves in similar situations because an odd trend has developed: people use mental illnesses as adjectives in their everyday life. However, this behavior only contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Individuals that adopt mental illness vocabulary in a colloquial manner are usually only vaguely familiar with the mental illnesses that they have chosen to help communicate their thoughts. With obsessive-compulsive disorder individuals commonly perceive it as simply partaking in the compulsive or physical aspects of the illness rather than the psychological aspects. Many times people reference stereotypes of individuals diagnosed with OCD because it is all that they are exposed to. Consequently, they align the attention of small details or little annoyances to the illness, which promotes misunderstandings between those who have OCD and those who do not.

Oftentimes, mental illnesses are utilized for comedic effect on popular television shows. This inconsiderate utilization of mental illnesses is especially common pertaining to OCD due to the compulsions associated with the illness. In the audience’s eyes, the efforts of the character with OCD seem futile. For example, there is “the classic comic gag of the barber trimming a customer’s mustache, and repeatedly finding that one side is longer than the other” (Weg, 2011). This ultimately leads to the mustache being completely trimmed off, however the audience fails to recognize that these efforts are caused by intense anxiety, which affect the individual on a daily basis. Another example is, “where the featured character is depicted as constantly rearranging misaligned items in a comical manner” (Beyond OCD, 2018). It is imperative to recognize, however, that this is only amusing to an outsider; the individual with OCD is not amused at all.

The portrayal of individuals with mental illness is evolving over time. As more characters are considerately shown as having a mental illness and coping with it, people gain a broader understanding and knowledge of the illness, thereby reducing stigma. For example, the popular television show Monk, stars a main character who has OCD. While the show is a comedy and consequently pokes fun at the main character, it “managed to entertain without making fun of Monk and others with OCD” (Health24, 2006). In other words, Monk’s mental illness was not the punchline to every joke and therefore didn’t hurt individuals with OCD. As a result, “the viewer develops empathy for Monk and gets some idea as to the devastating impact such a disorder can have on a person’s life” (Health24, 2006).

The bottom line is that many people are vaguely familiar with OCD but usually remain unaware of all aspects of the mental illness. Their fragmented understanding and  bit of exposure, however, does not give such individuals the authority to cling to certain mental illnesses as a means of effectively describing their thoughts or justifying their actions. Using mental illnesses as adjectives, creates a barrier to communicating effectively because those words are interpreted differently among those who have and have not been diagnosed with OCD. Using mental illnesses, such as OCD, as adjectives discredits the experience of an individual that has OCD. In our individualistic and low-context society many of us typically fail to empathize with or simply reject those with mental illnesses. However, caution, consideration and a minor change in language can help to propel the de-stigmatization of mental illnesses. Therefore, I urge you to mind your words.


Beyond OCD. (n.d.) Extreme Need for Symmetry or Exactness Retrieved from http://beyondocd.org/information-for-individuals/symptoms/extreme-need-for-symmetry-or-exactness

Health 24. (2006 August 28). Monk’s OCD: Fact or fiction?  Retrieved from https://www.health24.com/Mental-Health/Disorders/Monks-OCD-Fact-or-fiction-20120721

Weg, A. H. (2011 July 16). The Many Flavors of OCD. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-ocd/201107/the-many-flavors-ocd

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