Experts say no to OCD as “casual phrase”

About three per cent of Australians will experience OCD symptoms at some point during their lives. Photo by Elana Frost.
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OCD is a distressing mental illness that should not be appropriated as a casual term, according to experts. Elana Frost reports.

Mental health experts say the appropriation of obsessive compulsive disorder as a casual phrase trivialises the illness.

Dr Jacqueline Baulch, a clinical psychologist and the director of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology, says use of OCD in “common language” contributes to misperceptions about the disorder.

“Sometimes people can use phrases like ‘You’re so OCD’ in quite a derogatory way. But that can sometimes be because of people not understanding what it is,” she says.

Dr Baulch says the disorder is appropriated because it is “something that people can relate to a little bit even if they don’t have OCD as such.

“Like most mental health issues, a lot of people have elements of OCD in their personality.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have OCD, [but] they might experience thoughts that are intrusive or obsessive and they might also do behaviours to try and cope with those thoughts.”

Dr Michelle Blanchard, general manager for policy, research and programs at SANE Australia, agrees that OCD is often talked about incorrectly in conversation.

“We would encourage people to not use that phrase [‘I’m so OCD’] as way of just describing the behaviour that is part of their everyday life,” she says.

“Labelling of behaviour as OCD in people where they may not be experiencing the illness can be really challenging and kind of trivialises [it].”

Dr Blanchard says portrayal of OCD in the media and fiction also contributes to misperceptions and stigma.

Michelle Blanchard, general manager for policy, research and programs at SANE Australia, discourages people from using OCD as a phrase. Photo by Alberto Ovalle.

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by frequent intrusive thoughts called ‘obsessions’, which make someone feel the need to perform certain behaviours or rituals, known as ‘compulsions’, according to SANE.

Statistics from SANE suggest about three percent of Australians will experience OCD symptoms during their lifetimes. But Dr Baulch says stigma prevents people from seeking treatment or support.

“It delays [people] seeking treatment because they feel like they’re alone, that their experiences are maybe different to other people. They feel as though there’s something wrong with them.”

Dr Blanchard agrees: “[Stigma] can make it very difficult for people to reach out . . . they might feel like they’re going to be judged, or their experiences won’t be considered valid.”

Benjamin, who does not wish to disclose his surname, was diagnosed with OCD 20 years ago.

The 26-year-old, from Warragul, said the disorder interfered with his work as a mechanic.

“If I assembled a component for some machine that’s pretty crucial . . . I assembled and disassembled it multiple times. Just to eliminate [the] anxious feeling that I stuffed something up.

“And just spending excessive time cleaning things before I start working . . . people sort of wonder what the hell you’re doing.”

Benjamin is currently not working, and says OCD is “pretty much all the reason” why. He says stigma is also a factor.

“There’s fear of being viewed negatively and being seen as an idiot or some other derogatory term,” he says.

According to Dr Blanchard, appropriation can make those with OCD feel alienated because it trivialises their experiences.

“OCD is an illness that can be quite distressing for people, in that they might be aware that what they’re experiencing might be a bit irrational or excessive.

“So, it’s really important that we ensure that there’s good community understanding, so that people who are living with this experience feel like they can access help and support.”

Benjamin just wonders why people are so quick to label themselves with OCD “like [it’s] a fun thing to have”.

“I’m not sure whether the people saying that are trying to make themselves sound intelligent or they like the sound of using a big word to describe a perfectionist trait.

“It makes me wonder why they’d want to be associated with it.”

SANE has a program specifically designed to combat stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

StigmaWatch, which has been running for 18 years, allows the general public to report potentially problematic media items, which it will then investigate.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to hold the media to account,” Dr Blanchard says. “But what I would say is that the Australian media in general are quite good.”

Dr Blanchard says the best way to reduce stigma is education.

Dr Baulch suggests other ways people can help reduce stigma on a smaller scale.

“Just little things like active listening and empathy and having those meaningful, sometimes maybe vulnerable conversations with the people you love [can help],” she says.

She also says it’s important that people know there is help available.

“There are actually some effective treatments for OCD, so it’s certainly not something that someone necessarily has to live with for the rest of their life.”

If you are seeking more information or would like help and support regarding OCD and mental health, please visit www.sane.org.

If you would like more information about OCD and mental health, Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology provides free online resources at http://innermelbpsychology.com.au.