Have you ever walked past a stack of boxes in the grocery store and unconsciously straightened the one box that is out of place? “Wow, I’m so OCD,” you say, chuckling to your friend about your quirkiness before passing by without another thought. Or maybe your sister has been particularly moody, so you complain to your parents about how she’s been acting “really bipolar lately.”
We’ve all done it; using mental health terms as adjectives has become an easy way to describe eccentricities or differences in our everyday behaviors. Having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has become synonymous with neatness, bipolar with moodiness, schizophrenia with irrationality. But what is the overall effect of these expressions? While something seems off about using a diagnosable illness as casual slang, the malleability of language allows for certain words and phrases to exist independent of their formal definitions. We often use words colloquially without even thinking about their real definitions. So is saying you’re “so OCD” a harmless idiom, or is it inadvertently hurtful to those who actually have the disorder?
These phrases can often be heard from both students and teachers in the hallways and classrooms of M-A. In a survey of M-A students, the majority said they hear the casual use of mental health terms more than once a month, with 17 percent saying they hear it every day.
However, students were much more divided on whether or not this type of language is okay, with the majority of “other” responses saying it depends on the situation and audience.
Some write-in responses were vehemently opposed to how “politically correct” our society has become, while others strongly believed these phrases are truly harmful. Since OCD is perhaps the most frequently referenced, it seems pertinent to consider the experiences and opinions of those who have actually been diagnosed.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions are defined as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced … as intrusive or unwanted,” and compulsions are “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the individual feels driven to perform,” often in order to reduce anxiety caused by an obsession.
One M-A student who would like to remain anonymous has struggled with OCD throughout high school. “I would say it’s a constant state of discomfort and anxiety. I can’t do anything without thinking whether I did it ‘right.’ If I don’t do something a certain way, I have to do it again. I always count everything, line everything up, and perform almost every simple task — changing the volume, closing the door — in a certain way. It’s just this overall feeling of hopelessness because I essentially have no control.” She describes that the most challenging part of having OCD is when her friends and family don’t take her illness seriously or mock mannerisms that are caused by it.
Hearing those around her use OCD as a transitory adjective trivializes the difficulties she faces every day. “I think using those terms makes the conditions seem less significant than they actually are. I’ve had people joke about me ‘being OCD,’ even if they don’t know I have it, but they don’t necessarily view it as a bad thing. They always say it with a laugh or an eye roll or something. It invalidates my thoughts and is really frustrating to have people view my mental illness as a funny personality trait or as a choice that I’ve made.”
M-A senior Nicholas Andrew was diagnosed with OCD when he was seven, and his OCD currently manifests as mostly the repetition of thoughts. “When I was younger, everything had to be a specific way. When I was eating dinner, my chair had to be a certain distance from the table. [Or] my sheets in bed had to be a specific way or I couldn’t go to sleep. Then it moved on to obsessing over thoughts, which is more about my faith because I’m a Christian and that’s very important to me. But when I’m constantly obsessing over questions I have, it’s harder to focus on stuff. It’s good in some ways because I don’t have blind faith, but it’s also debilitating because I keep asking certain questions even when I know the answer.”
Andrew isn’t bothered when people use OCD as an adjective, as he thinks the phrase can describe experiences that are similar to those caused by the disorder. “It doesn’t bug me because it’s kind of like that, but to the Nth degree, like it’s on a much higher level. If somebody wants their binders a specific way and they’re like ‘Oh, I’m so OCD about that,’ that’s kind of what it’s like. But it’s a lot more like it has to be that way.”
In the end, it is important to remember that not everyone perceives things in the same way. A phrase that simply describes a unique quirk to one person can seem like offhandedly referencing a debilitating disease to another, and it is not up to us to decide if someone is allowed to be hurt by our words. With or without these phrases, it is always important to be mindful of the impact that our words and attitudes can have. As Andrew points out, “You can’t really see [OCD], like with all mental illnesses, and you don’t really know what’s going on with other people. It sounds cliché, but just be nice to everyone because you never know.”