By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD
While I wish I could spread the word about every single mental illness out there, my specialty, if you will, is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I have OCD, and once I started talking about it I didn’t want to stop. There’s still so much to say—and not a day goes by that a person on Twitter doesn’t use #OCD to describe one of their silly quirks, posting a photo of a neat, color-coordinating row of Easter candy and tagging it with #OCD, or a nearly spotless room with the caption “My mom made me clean my room because I had ONE SHIRT on the floor. #OCD.” As long as people have misconceptions, our work in the OCD community isn’t done.
Even those with the best intentions sometimes feel confused about what OCD really is. Can you have OCD even if you don’t perform compulsions? Yes! Can you obsess about something and not have OCD? Yes!
Let’s take a little quiz (don’t worry, this may be the shortest quiz you’ve ever seen):
Which of the following people may have OCD?
a. An elderly man who thinks he’s molested his next-door neighbor, even though the woman insists nothing has happened.
b. A teenage girl who spends hours on her homework because she has to check her work over and over again.
c. A new mother who’s so afraid of hurting her baby she won’t let her husband leave her alone with their daughter.
d. An elementary school student who washes his hands so often they’re raw and chapped.
The answer is all of the above. Are you surprised? Which scenario are you most surprised by?
Of course, these are just snippets of bigger pictures, but the reality is that the list of OCD symptoms is long and varied. The common denominators are fear and doubt. I’ll scratch the surface of each of the above examples: The elderly man fears he’s capable of molesting someone, and he doubts that he hasn’t already. The teenage girl doubts that she’s done her homework well, and no matter how hard she tries to convince herself she’s done enough, she fears she hasn’t. The new mother fears she’ll hurt her child and doubts her ability to keep her safe. The elementary school student might have a fear of germs, or he might think he can wash away his sins or prevent something bad from happening to his loved ones. It may not be rational, but as long as there’s room for doubt—can he ever be sure this ritual isn’t helping?—he feels he must continue.
It’s no wonder so many people don’t understand what OCD is. In a recent article in The Atlantic, the writer noted that as a student she was suspended for “being a threat to others” after she wrote about her obsessions in the school newspaper. She obsessed over the idea that she might be gay, she had a germ phobia, and, yes, she struggled with harm obsessions, worrying that she might accidentally stab somebody. But since her school counselor was not familiar with every symptom of OCD, she didn’t realize what was really going on. She didn’t know the last thing a person with OCD does is follow through with an obsessive thought. The writer agonized over the idea that she might hurt someone else, praying about it every 15 minutes. That is considered one of the major differences between a person who has violent obsessions and a person who is actually violent.
Students with OCD need, and deserve, compassion. They need someone they can trust with their deepest secrets. I suffered for too many years—decades, actually—because I didn’t think I could talk to anyone. In college I had a sociology professor who put a pink triangle and a rainbow sticker in her office window so GLBTQ students knew they could confide in her. What can school counselors and teachers do to let students know they can talk to them about anything? There’s no universal symbol for OCD, or any mental disorder, but a bookshelf lined with books about OCD, depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, and so on could go a long way toward communicating an open, understanding environment. Consider hanging posters that subtly get the message across to students that you are well-versed in mental illnesses.
Imagine a student with terrifying violent obsessions who finally works up the courage to tell someone, only to be suspended or reported—when the reality is the student will never act on the obsessions because they’re simply unwanted intrusive thoughts, not fantasies. The reason I kept my very taboo sexual obsessions to myself for so many years was that I often feared the perceived consequences more than the thoughts themselves. I really believed a therapist might have a legal obligation to report me, and I could have been diagnosed much sooner if I had realized there are professionals who know exactly what OCD is and understand the difference between people who commit terrible acts and people who only fear they will.
Sometimes intervention is necessary, of course. School staff can’t be too careful nowadays. But a little understanding can go a long way. So many conversations could be steered in the right direction, and students to the right kind of help.
How do you create a more understanding environment for your students who might be silently suffering from undiagnosed OCD, or any mental illness? Please share your ideas 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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