OCD: Washing Away the Stigma


A quick introduction; I’m a 19-year-old undergraduate reading English Literature and French while also coping with a mental disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, commonly known as OCD.

The current stigma and misconceptions of OCD in our society form the general public’s first and lasting impression of the illness, but where do these misconstrued and often negative stereotypes come from, and why do the public feel the need to latch onto them?

Public discourse can be facultative in their creation. Newspapers love to plaster the front pages with photos of crime-committing psychopaths. The fact that they had committed a crime no longer defines them; the fact that they are mentally unstable incriminates them. Rightly so, one may justly argue. However, what is seemingly unfair is the public’s further belief that all psychopaths are the same because of this anomaly. The problem stereotypes create is that they restrict individuality, replacing it with empiric oversimplifications. This can be seen in the case of OCD, where books, TV and film render it a pretty insignificant illness. An OCD sufferer is reified to their red hands, which are emblematic of the disorder.

Word cloud for Obsessive-compulsive disorderThere lies the problem; the public take the mental disorder at face value, where focusing on objective realities (or in the case of OCD – compulsions) becomes favourable to understanding the underlying thoughts (obsessions) which accompany them. In other words, they see someone always washing their hands but they don’t think about why. As a result, all OCD sufferers are reduced to mindless hand-washers, much like all psychopaths are reduced to amoral murderers.

Yet, why is the public so keen to believe these stereotypes? It may be that it comforts them. To have psychopaths labelled and defined as ‘murderers’ allows someone to physically and mentally distance themselves from them. If they allowed each psychopath’s individuality to be evident, they may realise that in fact everyone has some psychopathic tendencies, which a rather stigmatising Britain doesn’t quite seem ready to accept. In a similar way treating OCD as the one with the hand-washing allows individuals to understand it, which comforts them. The process of understanding a sufferer’s repetitive and debilitating obsessions, that ultimately fuel their compulsions, would seem alien to a non-sufferer and scare them. Ignorance is granted to the public in following these stereotypes allowing them to marginalise and repress sufferers, without feeling guilty.

These stereotypes ultimately create a vicious circle which the sufferer does not only become part of, but also trapped by. Students are particularly affected because many are only just coming to terms with their problems, or realising there is a problem at all. Imagine a student breaks their leg and is therefore given a cast by the doctor, in order to fix the bone and restore it to its former strength. In a similar way, imagine a student is struggling with obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviours – and therefore undergoes therapy in order to restore their former state of mind. Effectively, this therapy constitutes a ‘metaphorical cast’ for their mindset. Now, we wouldn’t dream of taking the cast off a student’s broken leg as the leg would be vulnerable and exposed, and potentially break again. Yet, what the earlier stereotypes mentioned do then to the student with OCD is rob them of their ‘metaphorical cast’, in undermining the reality of their illness. This can suspend the quality of a sufferer’s recovery and, potentially, take them back to square one. In the worst case scenario, without their ‘metaphorical’ cast, their mind may not be able to cope with the pressure of the stigma, causing a breakdown. As we allow a cast to fix a student’s broken leg, we have to be understanding of students’ mental illness in order to allow their ‘metaphorical cast’/therapy to fix their mind.


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