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Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: OCD is not an adjective

Looking back at Mental Health Awareness Month in May, mental health issues and the increasing number of people affected by them are not going anywhere. According to the National Institute of Mental Health 51.1 million adults in the U.S suffer from mental illness, with conditions varying from mild to severe.

I, most of my friends, acquaintances and much of the general public all deal with some form of mental illness. These conditions range from a minor episode to a long-lasting disorder. The increase of young people experiencing mental illnesses is partially due to generational differences, and factors that foster an environment for poor mental health like social media and general stigmatization, according to a 2019 article published by The American Journal of Managed Care

But that is all just background knowledge, and the reason I’m writing this isn’t to list the statistics of those with mental illness or bore you with mediocrely interesting facts. I’m writing this to share my experience. 

For as long as I can remember I have dealt with anxiety, an offshoot of that disorder being Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. 

OCD acts differently in everyone affected and can arise for various reasons. For me, the disorder is in my DNA, and although some life factors may have contributed to its intensity or behaviors, I was just as predestined to deal with OCD as I was to be 5’7 and have brown eyes. 

A common theme of OCD, at least as portrayed in the media, is that OCD is simply the need to be neat. Countless times I have heard people describe how they color-code their notes or organize their desk because of their “OCD.” And although, yes, OCD can manifest in ways that inspire obsessive organization, that is not the only way it reveals itself.

OCD hasn’t been treated like other mental illnesses in that there is no effort to end jokes surrounding it and its sufferers. Depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety have been brought up numerous times in the conversation around mental illness, encouraging people to only use those terms when appropriate.

And while that is an extremely important step to take, it is not the only one. I have heard people talk about how making mental illness jokes is not okay, and then in the same breath, use the term OCD incorrectly. 

To be completely honest, it’s infuriating. Because while maybe 1% of the time the people that refer to OCD in a passing way suffer from the disorder, I would be willing to bet that the other 99% of the time the people who say their actions are “so OCD” don’t suffer from the panic attacks, the screaming intrusive thoughts, the inability to get anything done because of the disturbing scenario playing over and over in your brain.

The nausea, restlessness, exhaustion, sadness, the guilt for these uncontrollable, disgusting thoughts. It’s an all-consuming, life-controlling, decision-making illness. I live my life confined by the fear of triggering a spiral, avoiding any and all of what sends me into those dark cages.

I feel horrible that I let it control me, but I also know the alternative is eternal suffering, and so I’m between a rock and a hard place and forced to pick the lesser of two evils. 

All of this is to say, OCD is not an adjective to describe your perfectionist, type-A actions. I am a type-A person, and the difference between my need to have my work done and days planned out and the constant, life-altering OCD stand on either side of a glaring divide. 

There are many more mental illnesses than general anxiety and depression, and although those issues are very real and very brutal, they don’t tell the whole story. Looking back at May, Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s time to focus on some of the unseen mental illnesses. There is Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression, all of which affect low percentages of the population, according to MentalIllnessPolicy.org.

All mental illnesses are real, valid, and must be discussed. There is no space in the conversation for mindless jokes and surface-level statements. Mental illnesses affect people’s lives every bit as much as physical ones do, and it’s time we start acting like it.