Debunking OCD: Medicine vs. Society


What is OCD? Is it being organized? Being a neat freak? In reality, it’s none of these things. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a complex mental illness that is far more than just being organized. The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” This mental illness is commonly taken as just someone being very organized and is often not taken as a serious mental disorder. Both locally and across the country, the stereotype and stigma around OCD need to be diminished.

Take this quiz about OCD!

OCD Myths and Misconceptions

Over the years, OCD has built up a huge stigma and been stereotyped to be less than a serious mental illness. These are some common misconceptions about OCD.

  1. Everyone with OCD is clean and organized.
  2. Everyone is a little bit “OCD”.
  3. People with OCD just need to control themselves.
  4. People with OCD are “weird” or “quirky”
  5. People with OCD don’t realize that they are acting irrationally.
  6. OCD is something to joke about
A song parody about OCD created by Rhett and Link of Good Mythical Morning

Signs and Symptoms

  • Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors
  • Fear of contamination or dirt
  • Need to have items organized or symmetrical
  • Unwanted taboo thoughts
  • Fear of touching things that others have touched
  • Double checking things such as turning off the stove or locking the door
  • Intense stress caused by disorderly things
  • Distress about unpleasant sexual images/thoughts occurring

Issues in Society

The phrases “OMG I’m so OCD about that” and “wow are you OCD or something” are commonly heard around my school. This is just one look into just how normalized OCD has become due to our society. Everyone wants to be perfect, and one common symptom is arranging things to seem “satisfying” or “perfect.” OCD has become something that makes you cool or trendy, when it actually is extremely debilitating to someone suffering from the illness.

Societal pressure is one of the main reasons OCD is not looked at as a serious mental illness. While it can completely change someone’s life, people now, especially teens, see it just as rearranging things and something that can be controlled. Search Instagram for OCD, and you get post after post of satisfying videos and pictures. If someone seems extra organized, people call them OCD. I am naturally an organized person in many aspects of my life, which leads to comments from friends about how I’m “so OCD.” In order for OCD to be taken seriously, this stigma needs to be dissipated and society needs to realize that it is an illness, not a trend.

Images like this one appear all over the internet as “satisfying ocd” images. This only supports the idea that having OCD is cool or satisfying, when in reality it is not.

History of OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder used to be known as Obsessive Compulsive Neurosis. It is common and has affected people among all cultures and communities throughout history. There are clear cases of OCD dating all the way back to the 14th century, however it got its name OCD in the 20th century. Before it was known as OCD, the symptoms were known as scrupulosity. Many of the older dated cases of OCD are in religious literature, and obsessional fears appear to have been common in relation to religion. In the 17th century, the symptoms were labeled as symptoms of melancholy.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther is best known as the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. It was believed that he suffered from OCD. His protégé, Philip Melanchthon described his symptoms as “terrors he experienced either for the first time, or in the most acute manner, during the year in which he was deprived of a favourite friend, who lost his life by some accident of which I am ignorant.” He often “contemplated the wrath of God” and would experience terrors and repeat prayers over and over. Luther would also have aggressive feelings of hatred towards his own brother and these thoughts would come up no matter how hard he would try to keep them out.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Scientist Charles Darwin was suspected to have suffered from OCD and anxiety. His mother died quickly and without explanation, and this tragic event severely affected him and possibly lead to his OCD and anxiety. He had obsessive thoughts that he could not block out, writing “I could not sleep and whatever I did in the day haunted me at night with vivid and most wearing repetition.” Additionally, he was his own worst critic and always needed reassurance. He was known to repeat “I have worked as hard as I could, and no man can do more than this” to himself over and over, which was likely part of an OCD compulsion.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla was an accomplished scientist who is best known for his design of the modern AC unit. His symptoms of OCD started around the age of 61 when he became obsessed with the number 3. He did things such as swimming 33 laps, circling the block three times before entering a building, and only leaving by turning right out of the door. Tesla also had a very strict schedule. He worked from 9:00am – 6:00pm, ate dinner at 8:10pm, and worked until 3:00am. Before bed, he would curl his toes 100 times. The next symptom that affected him was the fear of germs. He would polish every utensil, used 3 cloth napkins beside his plate, used 18 napkins during each meal, he would only stay in a hotel room with a number divisible by three and lived in room 3327 on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel for the last 10 years of his life. He counted his jaw movements when chewing food, and estimated the weight of his meal before starting to eat. He became so obsessed with avoiding germs that he wouldn’t shake hands when meeting people and wouldn’t touch anyone’s hair.

OCD Resources

Therapists/Mental Health Professionals – If you are concerned you have OCD, go to a mental health professional. OCD cannot be self-diagnosed and must be diagnosed by a licensed professional.

The IOCDF has a lot of general information about OCD, as well as educational resources, events supporting OCD, and an OCD advocacy program. It can also be useful to find a local support group.

The Peace of Mind Foundation has educational resources, volunteering options, targeted resources for kids and college students, treatment examples, and a specific section for hope while living with OCD.

Thank You!

Thank you so much for reading! I hope that you learned some more information about OCD and work towards reducing the stigma and stereotypes surrounding this serious mental illness! – Sarah

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Mai

    I love the unique approach you took to convey your message – I never would’ve thought to “debunk” OCD. You bring up so many valid and understated points – most of us do have misconceptions about the illness as the term has grown to embody such a vague and faulty definition.
    I also really like the interactiveness (video + quiz) of your site and how thorough and well-laid out it is!

    • April 26, 2019 by Sarah.Eichler

      Thank you so much! I definitely think that OCD is something that really needs to be fully evaluated to be thoroughly understood; something not many people take the time to do.

  2. April 27, 2019 by Casey Adelaide Abernethy

    Hey Sarah! I find this so great – like so great! I know many people that have OCD, and they consistently feel awful when people say “oh yeah I have OCD” when they haven’t been professionally diagnosed. There are so many misconceptions about this topic that you bringing up is so important. Good job!

    • April 27, 2019 by Sarah.Eichler

      Thank you and love you Casey! That was actually one of the main reasons I chose this topic, because I know so many people who actually have OCD don’t appreciate when someone uses it casually.

  3. April 27, 2019 by Lauren.Elvrum

    This is such an important project! There is so much stigma surrounding OCD and unawareness surrounding the disorder. It’s great to see your project debunking stereotypes!

    • May 01, 2019 by Sarah Eichler

      Thank you! Through my project, I really wanted to let people know what OCD really is, since not many people actually know its full effects.

  4. April 29, 2019 by Kaili Nakanishi

    Hi Sarah! I have a friend with OCD and the many misconceptions surrounding OCD can be very frustrating. Your project does a good job debunking those myths.

    • May 01, 2019 by Sarah.Eichler

      Hey Kaili! Not only can OCD be frustrating, but the stigma can be just as frustrating for those with the mental illness. A lot of times OCD is looked at less as a mental illness and more as a trend.

  5. May 01, 2019 by Maya

    Hi Sarah! I loved your project. I never really understood how OCD truly effects people until I talked to a close family friend of mine who has OCD. I think your project does a great job explaining what OCD is. I really liked your examples as well.

  6. May 04, 2019 by Georgia.Farmer

    Hey Sarah!
    Your presentation is unique and intriguing! Showing the misconceptions of OCD really presented what OCD actually is. Your dedication to the ‘history of OCD’ shows the importance of uncovering the truth. The resources you provided are also a great start to educate people on OCD!

  7. May 05, 2019 by Takuma.Warren

    This topic was extremely interesting to me. I especially liked how you broke down the historical figures who have suffered from OCD because it also shows that they can be some of the brightest members of society and that we shouldn’t try to hold them back. You did a great job showing the difference between the average person who has “OCD tendencies” and those who actually suffer from the disorder.

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