This post has been previously published at The Huffington Post, and addresses an issue incredibly important to me.
Several years ago, I had thought that OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) was like a personality trait that made people neat, tidy, and perfectionistic. I had thought that OCD made people arrange their wardrobes in creative ways and have a predilection for blue, as opposed to black, markers. The people around me would use the term “OCD” not as a noun, but as an adjective (and a rather flattering one, at that): “I’m so OCD about the way I arrange my books on my shelf,” or “Stop rearranging the desks, how OCD are you?” Little did I know that I had given in to one of the most prevalent misconceptions in the world of mental health and illness.
Those misconceptions were shattered over a year ago, when a girl exceedingly close to me started exhibiting strong symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. And that’s when I saw this illness for what it truly was: not a quirk, not an idiosyncrasy, but a serious condition that can tear down one’s life if left ignored and untreated. I saw that girl suffer, struggle to combat inner demons and conflicts, and succeed only after numerous attempts at trying. That was the true face of OCD.
I never use mental health terminology facetiously, and never have. That said, the realization immediately made me regret the times I hadn’t stopped my peers from using the term “OCD” flippantly and unknowingly. It makes me regret the times I had given a tight smile to those comments, dismissing them the next moment and letting the misconceptions stagnate and fester in the air. And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to sound patronizing or digress from the topic of our conversation. It was because I didn’t know.
But now I do. And from conducting research, reading books and elements of popular culture, and talking to different people, I’ve realized that these misconceptions cover almost the entire spectrum of mental disability. They may be glamorized, romanticized, demonized, or trivialized, among others. But one thing is certain: mental illnesses are rarely understood in their true form, thanks to the stereotypes and misconceptions that inundate them. And we may not realize it, but such fallacious beliefs can have a deep impact on those struggling with these illnesses every day (I only need to look at that young girl to know).
So let’s talk about other prevailing OCD misconceptions. As written by Beth W. Orenstein in her article in Everyday Health, OCD is not about cleanliness, or a desire to see everything immaculately organized on a tabletop. People with OCD may struggle with obsessions, compulsions, or both. As written by the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessions usually consist of anxiety-provoking thoughts and mental images, whereas compulsions are characterized by repetitive behaviors and the performance of rituals in order to curtail the anxiety. Compulsions can include repeating the same words or motions, entering and exiting a room, or repeatedly checking on doors to make sure they are locked. There are more, such as hoarding, compulsive counting, and excessive cleaning, but these are the ones that I clearly saw in that little girl with OCD. From what I’ve learnt and heard, people with OCD do not wash their hands because they like to be clean; they wash their hands in order to dispel the intrusive thoughts, emotional distress, and anxiety. They do not enjoy performing cleanliness rituals, but often feel like they are left with no choice. And not everyone with OCD washes their hands—that’s just the stereotypical image that has been embedded in society. As written by Courtney Lopresti in her article in Psychology Today, OCD is a heterogeneous disorder that manifests differently.
I’d also like to talk about a mental illness that is often glamorized or romanticized in popular culture: depression. On social media (especially Tumblr and Instagram), we find recurring images of attractive girls with melancholy expressions, listening to supposedly mournful music. The image it evokes is poetic, romantic. The word “depression” is used so loosely and airily that I doubt that anyone takes the phrase “I’m so depressed” seriously anymore. It has become so easy for people to say that they’re depressed because they had one bad day or week… to the extent that the real nature of this mental illness has been shrouded by layers of ignorance. As said by Dr. Pooky Knightsmith in Lifehack, her experiences with depression left her unable to connect with the real world, fearful of the future, detached from her emotions, and guilty when she did occasionally have a happy moment. It affected her relationships, and left her donning a “happy mask” that concealed her true emotions and struggles.
That’s distinctly different than the romanticized versions of depression that pepper social media websites. And that’s only one story among millions.
I’d like to address the misconceptions surrounding other mental illnesses, but will save that for another article. But one thing is definitely clear: these misconceptions largely arise from ignorance, and can have highly negative impacts on those who are struggling with these mental disorders. For instance, I know a girl who told me that she’s unwilling to tell people she has depression—for in the past, people have told her to “snap out of it,” or had responded with “I was really depressed a few weeks ago too, I know exactly how you feel.” And, well, OCD is an illness that is predominantly misunderstood, and whose image seemingly embodies the tiniest fraction of what it really means to have it.
It’s time that mental disorders are put on the same pedestal as physical illnesses. Why is OCD trivialized to quirks or idiosyncratic mannerisms, when cancer is universally respected for being the debilitating disease it is? Why are depression and eating disorders glamorized, while diabetes is portrayed for what it truly is? As I’ve extrapolated from my daily conversations, some people subconsciously believe that mental disorders can be effectively combatted by “thinking differently.” But it isn’t, and will never be, that straightforward. Mental illnesses are extremely real, are evidently veiled by misconceptions, and consequently carry a swathe of stigmas with them. But that doesn’t mean that these false impressions can’t be corrected. It only takes a few minutes to completely alter an ignorant person’s viewpoint on a topic of extreme significance. And so, as the young leaders of our world, we have an obligation: to make the world a more understanding and aware place for those struggling with mental illnesses, so that we can all be ushered into a world where each person gets the support and encouragement he/she deserves.