What do Monica Geller, Sheldon Cooper, and Spencer Reid have in common? Each of these television characters are openly diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by intrusive, “obsessive” thoughts, and repetitive motions in order to silence or quiet these thoughts (labeled by the American Psychiatric Organization as “compulsions”). Examples of compulsions given by the APA range from hand washing and cleaning to checking behaviors, and are described as “significantly interfere(ing) with a person’s daily activities and social interactions.” “The cleaning disease” or “obsessive Christmas disorder” are typical labels given to OCD in both the marketplace and the media. These stereotypes have misconstrued the true nature of OCD, spreading misinformation about the disorder.
The media often portrays OCD as applying to organizational and cleaning domains. Generalizations like these reduce the mental disorder to an oversimplified set of habits. Another effect of these portrayals is the creation of a false sense of predictability. For example, memes such as this one display OCD as organizational and neat behavior, characteristics which certainly may be exhibited in compulsion or obsessions, but are not essential to an OCD diagnosis. Additionally, organization alone does not constitute mental illness and is generally a good and healthy habit. Misrepresenting OCD by using the illness as an adjective also commonly occurs in the media, notable in various Twitter threads. Check out this tweet, which states “everyone tag your OCD friends,” captioning an image of a messy to neat bedroom transition.
“As I’ve grown older and my OCD has grown with me, I’ve been surprised by the ways that compulsions manifest in otherwise very normal situations,” said Lauren Blaser, MCAS ‘22. “I don’t have the same obsessive habits I did as a child, like saying ‘goodnight’ to all six of my favorite stuffed animals every night or consistently washing my hands up to my elbows. As a college student, I instead ruminate over thoughts and ideas that people without OCD might more easily let go—a comment I regret, a look someone gives me, a mistake I make. I liken my symptoms to a game of Whack-a-Mole. Just when I knock down my tendency to obsess over one area of life, another one springs up, so that I’m constantly poised to meet the next point of anxiety. I don’t have all of my clothes perfectly folded, but a social situation can leave me obsessing over the outcome for longer than necessary.”
Inaccurate descriptions by the media misrepresent the true symptoms of OCD and gaslight those suffering from the illness. OCD is a debilitating illness that can manifest in sexual, violent, and religious intrusive thoughts. A 2016 study concluded that “OCD is associated with high risk not only [of] depression but of suicidal behavior.” The team evaluated 50 people with OCD in Punjab, India, and found that 57% of those with compulsions rooted in “cleanliness and contamination” and 45% of those with religious obsessions experienced suicidality. Stereotyping OCD to just cleaning behaviors and misrepresenting it as organizational topics could adversely affect the diagnosis process of the 2.2 million Americans in the US who have OCD, because attributing OCD to symptoms such as those affect interpretations of what the disorder really is.
“As a person clinically diagnosed with OCD, I was shocked upon my diagnosis because I did not have the typical symptoms attributed to OCD that popped up on my Instagram and Twitter feeds,” said Devyn Casey, LSOEHD ‘24. “I had grown up hearing OCD used as an adjective; discussions of ‘I’m so OCD, all my highlighters have to be color-coordinated’ embodied my middle school experience. Statements such as these from my classmates are perpetuated by misrepresentations of the disorder in the media, and resulted in me thinking that because my pencil case and backpack are always disorganized, there was no way I could have OCD. These assumptions were carried with me throughout my adolescence, causing me to doubt that the harmful obsessions and compulsions that dominated my everyday life were due to my OCD, and instead, something else must be wrong with me.”
Not all media portrayals of the disorder are misleading. A study published in Feb. 2021 analyzed 82 YouTube videos which reference OCD, and concluded that 69.5% of them had “useful educational utility.” As is typical of most information delivered through fictional stories, problems arise when we accept individual examples as the universal blueprint.
While the media might promote misunderstanding, it can also be a platform of representation for people struggling with OCD. Watching shows with characters suffering from OCD and reading books featuring descriptions of this disorder can give people initial insight into what this illness entails. The media can also provide us with more specific information—for example, although there is no cure for OCD, therapy and medication help bring some relief to seven out of every ten diagnosed individuals.
It’s not likely that the audience of Friends or Criminal Minds is tuning in to learn more about OCD. The more often they watch Monica Geller go on a cleaning spree or Sheldon Cooper grapple with hypochondria, though, the more this condensed depiction of OCD is reinforced. In reality, OCD behavior is exhibited in a multitude of ways, including but not limited to cleaning and organizational habits. OCD awareness week falls in mid-October, and the Twitter thread #OCDawarenessweek is one tool we can utilize to begin to understand the multi-faced disorder that is OCD.