Our country is now collectively more focused on mental health than ever. As many headlines shared, “how to maintain mental health” made it to the top of Google’s 2021 Year in Search list. Everyone has been thinking and reading about the fact that we are struggling, and new companies broadly focused on providing better access to care have gained record funding to pursue that goal. This is a major step in the right direction.
At the same time, there remains a pervasive misunderstanding of different types of mental health conditions—and, sadly, a continuing stigma around many of them—preventing people from receiving quality access to care. Certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, have gained attention (and with it, proper treatment) along with the catch-all discussion of “mental health.” Yet while posts ending in #mentalhealth and #depression proliferate on social media, people are still slower to proclaim to the world that they are #bipolar or struggle with #OCD, for example. The result is that people with those conditions remain silent sufferers. In many cases, it is difficult for them to learn about the right kind of care, and even when they do, that kind of quality care can be very difficult and costly to access.
This piece seeks to take on the all-too-common misconceptions of OCD, one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions (a similar story needs to be told for many mental health conditions). When thinking of OCD, many reading this can probably recall countless times that friends, family, or even they themselves referred to someone or something endearingly as being “OCD.” Or perhaps not endearingly, but casually nonetheless.
Despite public perception, OCD is far from a joke. The acronym OCD stands for “obsessive-compulsive disorder,” a mental illness that is ranked by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten most disabling chronic conditions. OCD causes people to have recurring unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that can be taboo, irrational, and completely debilitating.
A mother with postpartum OCD might have an irrational fear of brutally hurting her children. Given that the fear is ego-dystonic in nature—meaning that it manifests in a way that is the polar opposite of her core values and character—she is the least likely person to ever hurt her kids. However, the inability to gain complete certainty about her children’s safety might lead the mother to experience debilitating, around-the-clock anxiety. What people without a friend or loved one with the condition might not realize is that someone with OCD might go from being a superstar athlete, top student, or any other high functioning individual, to homebound because of the constant distress caused by their irrational OCD fears.
The reason for this is the nature of OCD: To ensure with certainty that their intrusive, irrational fears do not come to fruition, people with OCD perform repetitive and sometimes visibly quirky actions called compulsions. Someone suffering from OCD might perform these compulsive behaviors for over 10 hours straight each day. This all-consuming behavior may provide them with certainty and relief from anxiety in the short-term, but in the long-term, it fuels their recurring fear and corresponding distress. It’s a vicious cycle that sadly affects one in 40 people globally, causes millions to develop substance use disorders, and leads to countless suicides.
OCD’s widespread misunderstanding is, perversely, fed by its familiarity. The term is often used in casual speech to refer to being uptight, to the extent that most people come to think this is what the term means. Sadly, not only is this incorrect, but it is unintentionally offensive, increases the devastation for millions of families, and makes it more difficult for those with OCD to find the right treatment.
This phenomenon begs the important question: Why is this term used so frequently, and at the same time so incorrectly? People who are deeply compassionate and careful with their words still unknowingly use this term in a way that offends those afflicted. Looking at OCD today, the question is even more compelling because it is preventing millions of people from understanding that their extreme suffering has a name and that their condition is treatable.
As someone who became housebound part-way through college after failing to understand that my common OCD symptoms had a name, and who regained my life after receiving specialized treatment for OCD called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, I was so moved by this experience that after my recovery, I dedicated my life to making this effective treatment available to all who need it. I started a company called NOCD, which focuses on (1) combating obsessive-compulsive disorder, and (2) raising awareness so more people “know OCD.” Over the past couple of years, I have been delighted to see an uptick in the understanding of mental health conditions generally, and am confident that we can deepen this recognition for all conditions.
My team and I at NOCD have partnered with Howie Mandel to redefine OCD’s connotation in society through our #KnowOCD campaign. Together, our goal is to create a world where everyone can recognize OCD, understand its true meaning, and access evidence-based treatment if they are in need of help. The partnership has been catalyzed by mutual, personal passion.
Like me, Mr. Mandel has sought to raise awareness about OCD and the need for proper treatment: “After so much mental suffering throughout most of my life, it was a gift, first, to identify my issue as having OCD. Once I was diagnosed, my journey to becoming a highly functioning, productive person was finally able to begin. Based on my own experience, the two biggest barriers to gaining control over this condition were—and remain—the stigma attached and access to high-quality treatment.”
Mr. Mandel partnered with my team earlier this year for all of these reasons. “I cannot stress enough how exciting this partnership is to me because it tackles any patient’s two main hurdles. NOCD and I are bent on removing all stigma associated with OCD and, more importantly, creating the most accessible treatment for absolutely everyone dealing with this condition.”
Going forward, Mr. Mandel and my team at NOCD are planning to run educational campaigns that use society’s recognition of the term OCD to change its connotation. Although one in 40—equivalent to hundreds of millions of people globally—will suffer with OCD at some point in their life, everyone needs to understand its true meaning for its connotation to change. Some day having OCD will not be taboo; rather, it will be taboo to say “that is so OCD,” just as it now is for other historically misused terms describing mental illness.
Our country has made huge strides in putting mental health on the map in the past year, and now is the time for us to develop a more nuanced understanding that further destigmatizes specific conditions so people can get the much-needed, right kind of help. We are doing our best to make this happen for OCD. Let’s make it happen for all who are struggling.
To learn more about our partnership with Howie Mandel and how we’re redefining OCD through the #KnowOCD campaign, visit KnowOCD.com.