Your Need for Tidiness Does Not Make You ‘So OCD,’ Psychiatrists Gently Remind

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A gentle reminder: Your habit of keeping your desk neat does not make you “so OCD.” In a recent Reddit AMA, a team of psychiatrists at Columbia University Medical Center who study obsessive-compulsive disorder answered questions about the mental disorder, and a theme soon emerged: A lot of people have some pretty warped perceptions of what the psychiatric disorder really is. Here are some of the highlights from that chat. (Quick note: The entire team — 11 in total — participated and answered in collective statements, which is why I won’t be referring to specific psychiatrists here.)

On the one hand, the casual usage of the term OCD suggests that people are becoming more familiar with its existence. In a way, this is a good thing. “In some ways, media portrayal of OCD has increased awareness of this disorder and its prevalence,” they wrote. “It has helped to normalize it and reduce stigma associated with having it. In other ways, it has portrayed it inaccurately and has led to the public misconception of OCD.” When asked to name examples of positive, responsible portrayals of OCD in television or movies, the psychiatrists could only come up with one: the A&E show Obsessed, which “did an excellent job demonstrating different ways that this disorder presents itself and the treatment that is most recommended for it.”

As an article in The Atlantic pointed out last year, in its colloquial usage the term OCD has become synonymous with terms that signify positive quirks, usually things like “tidy” or “orderly.” But OCD is about (much) more than tidying up; it’s a malfunction of brain circuitry that can result in a variety of symptoms, and this rather glib characterization ignores the destructive toll that the disorder can take on a person’s life. It trivializes mental health, an issue too many fail to take seriously already.

The Columbia psychiatrists further write:

OCD is when you have obsessions and compulsions that last more than an hour a day, cause you significant distress, and interfere with your daily functioning. … Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts that someone does over and over again to try to reduce the distress/anxiety caused by obsessions. Compulsions are not just behaviors. They can be something that someone does over and over again in their head all day long. For example, people can mentally review events over and over, or count to certain numbers or repeat certain words in their head over and … over.

“[T]he word disorder is there for a reason,” the researchers continue, and, really, there are so many more inventive ways to humble-brag, anyway.