To Transform and Smash Stigma, We Need to Quit Treating Mental Illness Like It's a Silly Game
by Sarah Fader, Regular Contributor and creator of #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike
Fact #1: OCD is a mental illness. The symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder consist of:
- Compulsive hand washing and/or cleaning
- Irresistible urge to check on things such as if the stove is off or the door is locked
- Ritualized counting or sorting of objects (punding)
- Tics or stereotypical movements
- Having a strict sense of order
- Obsessively following a stringent routine
- Requiring constant reassurances
It is a serious disorder, and I have several friends in my life who live with OCD. I have personally seen people in the midst of these symptoms, and it’s scary for them and to watch. People who live with OCD are (above all else) human beings. They should be treated as such.
Fact #2: OCD is NOT something you can call yourself or another flippantly without a diagnosis, or take a fucking quiz to see how "OCD" you are!
When I see online quizzes that are titled “How OCD Are You?” I feel the fire rising in my gut! It makes me hurt and angry for my loved ones who live with this real mental health issue. The quizzes consist of asking the participant if they feel the urge to color code or rearrange objects, asking the individual to spot the difference between two pictures that ostensibly look identical, and other questions that focus more on how much of a neat freak you are.
These quizzes are dangerous to both the people living with OCD and people who take them. The reason they are detrimental is to people living with OCD is that they are objectively offensive. Making fun of a mental illness is wrong and the maker of the quiz has clearly missed the mark on what they’re trying to achieve. Secondly, the quizzes reinforce the false belief that "OCD" is something that is okay to use as a colloquialism for how "neat" or "ordered" you are.
But I'll ask you this: would you be okay with taking a quiz to see how "schizophrenic" or "borderline personality disorder" you are and share it online?
I didn't think so.
I’ve thought about potential psychological motivations for making such quizzes. I think the reason behind producing them is that the maker of the quiz believes that their creation is humorous. This could not be further from the truth; the quiz is not humorous. It’s offensive and it adds to the stigma already out there! I doubt the creator of a quiz like has OCD or is related to someone they knew who authentically struggles with OCD. If they did, they would think twice about mocking people living with this mental illness.
I would be interested to know what people who have been diagnosed with OCD think of these things. I personally do not have OCD. However, I find the quizzes objectively offensive. Imagine what a human being with OCD is feeling when they see a quiz that asks them if they are “so OCD” that they “can’t even.” Come on, that’s just ridiculous and offensive.
What is the solution? My first suggestion would be stop making those types of quizzes, and second, look to questionnaires or resources from reputable websites like Psych Central and WebMD that do OCD screenings if you're genuinely interested in whether you may actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is a better method to determine whether or not you have symptoms of this mental illness. Initial screenings are only a first step and they serve to send you to a professional who can diagnose and help you.
And that’s the thing, the Internet should not have the power to diagnose people with a mental illness. The Internet is not a doctor; your doctor is a doctor. Think about it like this: would you take an online quiz to ask if you had cancer or not? It is unlikely that you would do this because you would go to an actual MD! The same rule for being diagnosed with a physical illness applies to getting screened for a mental illness.
How To *Really* Smash Stigma
Part of the problem is the societal stigma that mental illness isn’t “real.” Unfortunately, people with OCD (and other mental health issues) are often told that they are “making it up” or being “dramatic.” This is not the case, and their symptoms are their reality. We need to honor the fact that OCD is an illness just as real as being sick with Crone’s disease. It isn’t fair to disregard OCD as being “unreal” because it invalidates the people who have this illness. It's the only way to transform the societal stigma associated with these things—first, we need to understand that these brain diseases are real.
Before you consider sharing a “How OCD Are You”? quiz on social media, remember that there are people out there compulsively checking the stove to make sure that it’s off.
Realize that their brain cannot rest until they are satisfied.
There are human beings—real people—washing their hands until they are raw because they’re convinced that they are contaminated.
There’s a person who is afraid to step on a crack in the sidewalk because he believes God will punish him.
And there's a young woman out there who needs to shut a door, over and over, until it "sounds right" and she knows it's shut.
These are just a handful of real examples of things that people with OCD live with—some with medication and support, others without. Our goal should be to honor these people’s reality, not promote stigma.
We can change the way that mental illness is perceived, but only if we don't allow a stupid online quiz to marginalize and dismiss what real OCD is really about.
Sarah Fader is a regular contributor to TIR. She is the inventor of the wildly popular hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike. She's been featured in The Huffington Post and is the Founder & CEO of the website, Stigma Fighters. Recently, Sarah was featured in the New York Times! She lives with her children in Brooklyn, NYC. You can follow her on Twitter here.