By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD
Media coverage of bullying has gotten this serious problem on everyone’s mind, and more programs and initiatives are popping up all the time in an effort to combat it. This is great news. But with so much focus on intentionally rude and hurtful behavior we can forget how easy it is to accidentally make someone feel bad. The preteen and teen years are already fraught with confusion and angst and an unparalleled desire to fit in. Adding a mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to the mix is adding insult to injury.
I have OCD, so I’m particularly sensitive to people throwing around the phrase “I’m so OCD!” I tend to hear it more—I suppose it’s similar to how in tune a person is to his or her own name. If I overhear someone say “OCD” I perk up and focus on the conversation. I hate to say it, but I’m often waiting to be offended, and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
More often than not, when a person jokes about OCD he doesn’t actually have it. It usually turns out that he has a thing about being five minutes early to every appointment, or he organized his books by color over the weekend. He may be punctual, polite, organized, superstitious, or unbending, but what he is not is “so OCD.” That phrase is usually a dead giveaway that the person knows very little about the disorder itself.
I’ve often wondered what it is about obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes it such an easy target for jokes. Every once in a while a person will confuse schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder and I’ll politely point out the difference, but I’ve never heard someone brag about being “soooo schizo” or “sooo suicidal.” Is it because “OCD” is so much easier to say than “obsessive-compulsive disorder” and over time people have forgotten what it means? Is it because it’s so much easier for people to understand what they can see, behaviors like stepping over cracks in the sidewalk, excessive hand-washing, and keeping pens and pencils in a perfect, even row?
For the most part I think people who claim to “be OCD” or who joke about the disorder aren’t being mean. I think they just don’t understand that it isn’t a laughing matter for those who struggle with it, and they don’t realize that on any given day someone they’re with could be touched by OCD in some way, whether the person has the disorder or has a loved one who does.
Let students know it’s not okay to joke about OCD or other mental illnesses. Remind them that a classmate, teacher, or friend may have the disorder, and that person’s feelings may be hurt. Watch what you say, too. Believe me, I understand how easily inappropriate comments can slip out! Maybe you didn’t know how serious OCD is and never gave such comments much thought. It takes time to coach yourself out of saying a phrase you’ve never considered hurtful before.
Make a point of listening for kids making light of any mental disorder and casually intervene by sharing your knowledge of the topic. Give kids the benefit of the doubt—people have told me about their “diagnosis,” not realizing I actually have OCD. They’ll say something like “I’m really particular about how I store my files. I have OCD, you know.” Instead of assuming they’re joking, I ask, “Oh, you have OCD? I do, too!” Sometimes it turns out the person is completely serious and we’ve learned we have something in common. Other times the person was trying to make a joke, but I treated the situation lightly enough that we can keep the conversation going and I can clear up some misconceptions. As frustrating as it can be to hear someone perpetuating stigma, it’s better for me to assume the best in people and keep a cool head—I won’t have done the OCD community any favors by stomping away in anger.
If you overhear a student telling another student how “OCD” she is, you might follow it up with a few questions: I overheard you talking about OCD. I hope you know I’m here to listen at any time. This is an honest and genuine way to get a student to open up. She may say, “What do you mean? I don’t actually have OCD!” and you can let her know OCD is a serious disorder that can really disrupt a person’s life. It’s also possible that she does have OCD and was making light of it to a friend, and now she knows she has a trusted adult to talk to.
Have you helped dispel myths about mental health with the young people you work with? Please share your stories in the comments.
Alison Dotson is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. She was diagnosed with OCD at age 26, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You can read more about Alison on her blog at alisondotson.com.
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