Voices: Celebrities tell us that mental health matters – so why is OCD still treated as a joke?
“Be kind” can perhaps be described as the definitive phrase of the last three years. We have posted the suicide hotline numbers, shared pictures of the pills popped to maintain a normal life. We have told friends to open up and shared the terrifying stories of people who have tragically lost their lives to mental illness. And we watched those we look up to on social media do the same.
Mental wellbeing advocacy became the great unifier of us and them. We knew no one was exempt from the seismic tremors of mental illness, not even those with 500k followers, champagne on tap and a brand deal.
We are all aware of more common diagnoses such as depression and anxiety, and we have become far more sensitive to the mental wellbeing of others. According to mental health charity Mind: “One in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England.” Yet, a mental illness that 1 per cent of people in the UK suffer from is trivialised – the butt of jokes the world over.
OCD is a mental illness that can strip away every shred of normality your life may have, all at once or more gradually, with how you used to live slipping through your fingers, trickling like soapy water down the plughole. It comes in many guises, with obsessions, compulsions, rituals and ruminations affecting sufferers in different ways. The number of people seeking help for OCD symptoms has risen sharply during the pandemic , with many experiencing health anxiety around Covid. A survey from Mind found that 72 per cent of people with OCD felt that their symptoms had worsened in the pandemic.
Research from Imperial College London shows that in five out of the six studies, obsessive compulsive symptoms in young people were exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. I know that my once beneath-the-surface obsessions and worries became overwhelming, with the new concern of this threat to life and normality. Intrusive thoughts began to dictate my day-to-day life and I needed a diagnosis for what was going on in my brain.
I thought I had invented the whole thing in my head. I thought it was normal to live life constantly on the edge of what feels like a mental precipice. Getting an OCD diagnosis put a name to the wading-through-molasses feeling of navigating my own thoughts and behaviours. It made it treatable. But it is a term and an illness that is mocked and minimised all too often.
In 2021, Paloma Faith was one of several celebrities who faced a backlash after making a comment about OCD. While discussing visits to the hospital during the pandemic, she said: “I wear a visor and two masks and open every door with an anti-bac wipe.” She proceeded to joke about how all the protective gear made her “look OCD”. Similarly, upon entering the camp on last year’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here , former dancer Arlene Phillips felt it necessary to share: “I am completely OCD about everything in my life being organised, clean, neat and tidy.”
Nina is 21 and, like me, she has found celebrity comments like this seriously damaging, as someone struggling with OCD. She told me: “We’re not ‘all a bit OCD’. It is a mental illness. It is debilitating. It can make life a living hell. Sometimes you get stuck in a never-ending loop where you’re forced to analyse some really scary stuff. Sometimes you experience false memories where you aren’t quite certain what is real and what is not – as though your brain is gaslighting you.”
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Even at the start of this year, as our social media feeds became saturated with self-improvement content, mental health advocate and Love Island star Hugo Hammond shared a story with a picture of organised cones in a gym. The caption read: “Back coaching today (still OCD with my cones).”
Finding order in chaos is very human, not just an OCD trait. Nick, 24, finds this assumption frustrating. “One big misconception about OCD is that it’s just a quirky habit where you like your pens all lined up in a row. Sure, behaviour like that can be somewhat OCD-like but it’s important to remember that OCD is a disorder. Suffering from OCD is like having a war going on inside your head. For me, even though I know most of the time the things I’m obsessing over are illogical, the irrational side of me can’t let it go.”
Famous folk and social media be-kinders, take note: my room isn’t all that tidy. I enjoy the odd deep clean and absolutely revel in a wardrobe clearout, but that isn’t OCD. However, I do have to change tube carriage, check the doors a certain number of times before bed, and remain on a waiting list for therapy.
OCD isn’t your quirk or your cute little affectation. It is an illness – one that’s underfunded, under-treated and under-researched. Mental health matters, even when it isn’t a neatly packaged, shareable infographic.