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OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, continues to be stigmatized as a health issue even though there's a paradoxical adoption of the term in the English language. Somewhere along the way, it not only became an adjective, but also a rather cool quirk we use in our day-to-day language. Phrases such as, “Oh, my OCD is acting out, I had to tidy the kitchen,” or “She orders the same thing when she comes to this restaurant; she’s so OCD,” or “My mom makes me clean my closet; so OCD.”
Contrary to what the popular misuse of the term would have us believe, OCD is not just something propelling people to clean. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder characterized by, in simple terms, unreasonable, repetitive thoughts or fears that cause anxiety and then a compulsion to act in a manner to attempt to decrease the anxiety.
Take the example of a young boy who felt the need to circle his desk counterclockwise five times before sitting down. He irrationally thought if he did not do this his parents would die. His teachers failed to stop this behavior forcibly as this would lead to increased anxiety and failure to function.
There are other themes for obsessions and compulsions. Fear of contamination can lead to elaborate hand washing. Counting stairs, avoiding walking on patterned floors, checking doors and locks multiple times or in multiples of a particular number and starting over if the routine is disrupted all are associated with OCD. All of these can be time- and energy-consuming, taking over a person’s life and keeping them from functioning. They may miss work, be late for assignments and isolate from people for fear of judgement.
There needs to be a change in our approach. Using a serious OCD diagnosis nonchalantly as an adjective trivializes the ordeal these patients go through daily. This creates more stigma and keeps people from getting the medical help they need.
Filza Hussain, M.D., is a psychiatrist who sees patients in Behavioral Health at Mayo Clinic Health System in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
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