By Wesley Gallagher
You’ve probably heard someone joke about being “OCD” because they color-code their closet or always carry hand sanitizer. Maybe you’ve seen or used hashtags like #soOCD on social media to cap off a joke about peculiar quirks or particularities. You might have even taken a fun online test to find out “how OCD” you are. Jokes like these may seem harmless, but there’s good reason to think twice before using the name of this mental illness so flippantly.
What Is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a well-known mental illness, but it is one that’s easily misunderstood because of the way it is often portrayed in the media and talked about in everyday speech. It’s not just about excessive hand-washing or extreme organization. It is a complex, multifaceted disorder with a range of symptoms that can be quite severe.
OCD is characterized by involuntary, recurrent, obsessive thoughts and repetitive, compulsive behaviors, and is usually only diagnosed as such when these behaviors interfere with daily life. Most people with OCD have both obsessive and compulsive behaviors, but as with any mental illness, OCD manifests differently in different people.1
Common obsessions include fear of germs, fear of harming oneself or others, or the idea that everything must be orderly and symmetrical. These thoughts are usually disturbing and feel uncontrollable. Obsessive thoughts often lead to compulsions, which are actions performed to make the obsessive thoughts go away. Compulsions may include excessive cleaning, constant checking of things like oven switches and locks, and repetitive behaviors like counting and tapping.1
Those who suffer with OCD are usually aware that their behavior is irrational but cannot stop themselves from the compulsive actions. Studies have shown that the link between belief and action is somewhat broken in the brain of people with OCD, so what they do conflicts with what they know to be true. Even if they know it’s unlikely a doorknob will contaminate them, for instance, they will still wash their hands after touching it.2
OCD is often associated with other mental illnesses and disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Even on its own, it can be debilitating.
So What’s the Big Deal with Joking About OCD?
You might be wondering what the real harm is in cracking a joke every once in awhile about OCD. After all, it’s just a joke, right?
Unfortunately, for about 2.2 million adults in America, OCD is no laughing matter.1 You may not realize it, but you probably know someone who deals with the disorder. People with OCD often try to hide their symptoms out of embarrassment, and some people suffer internally from obsessive thoughts that may not manifest in outward compulsions.
When you joke about OCD, or any mental illness, the unintentional consequence is that people’s experiences are diminished from a serious mental disorder to nothing more than an idiosyncrasy or quirk — funny little habits that warrant laughter instead of treatment.3 This is not only embarrassing to people who have the disease, but it can actually hurt their chances of getting help.
Due to common usage of the term, OCD has become synonymous with words like clean and organized, which are seen as good qualities. While this might seem like a positive effect, what it actually does is strip the illness of its reality as a devastating disorder.4
When OCD or its symptoms are seen as positives, we are encouraging, overlooking or allowing people to dismiss them. Misperceptions diminish the severity of their symptoms making people with OCD less likely to seek the help they need.4 When the reality and complexity of OCD is misunderstood, recognizing the disorder becomes much more difficult.
What Can I Do To Help?
Studies show that it takes an average of 14 to 17 years from the time symptoms of OCD begin for someone to obtain appropriate treatment. Whether due to embarrassment and fear of stigma or misunderstanding about what OCD actually is, it can be difficult for people to seek treatment.5
In order to fight stigma and misunderstandings, we have to stop joking about OCD. If you find yourself wanting to tweet about how you just organized your spice drawer again because you’re #soOCD, use a different hashtag. If your coworker jokes about how OCD your boss is about meeting times, don’t just laugh it off. Consider gently correcting them and offer a more appropriate word for them to use. Educate yourself on OCD and other mental illnesses so you know what to look for and can correct any misperceptions you encounter. Get involved with movements aimed at raising awareness for such disorders, and cap off your tweets about OCD awareness with a helpful hashtag.
If you or someone you love deals with OCD, don’t let jokes or stigmas get in the way of seeking treatment. Mental illness is real, it is serious, and most importantly, it can be treated
1 George, Nancie. “When It’s Not Just OCD.” Everyday Health, September 3, 2014.
2 Makin, Simon. “An Inner Look into the Minds and Brains of People with OCD.” Scientific American, October 4, 2017.
3 Gonzalez, Maru. “Attention Hipsters: OCD Is Not A Joke.” Huffington Post, June 16, 2015.
4 Tipu, Fatima. “OCD Is Not A Quirk.” The Atlantic, February 22, 2015.
5 “What You Need to Know About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” International OCD Foundation, Accessed October 23, 2017.