August 9, 2012

Photo of Thea, a Time to Change bloggerMy most recent job was a graduate internship working with students within the Christian Union at my university. Whilst my bosses had always been aware and supportive of my struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I’ve never really felt like this is something one should share too openly for fear of being regarded as ‘crazy’.

This is clearly a result of my own prejudice or society’s general stigma against mental health issues. “If I tell people”, I think to myself, “that makes me different”, and not different in a cool way. But different in an ‘uh-oh, mental alert’ kind of way.

When I was a teenager (before my official diagnosis but aware that something was not quite right) calling people ‘crazy’ as a joke was totally fine. Being called ‘mad’ now doesn’t bother me: people are generally referring to my loud, outgoing personality.

It’s not cool to admit you’ve been frightened to go outside the house

But telling people you have a recognised mental health issue is quite another matter. It’s not cool to admit you’ve been frightened to go outside the house on your own or that you get overly anxious about what is everyday life for most people.

This is why standing up in front of a group of and openly disclosing that my year had been hard, due to OCD, was not something I imagined that I’d do. However, it dawned on me throughout this year that there’s no point in me talking about ending mental health stigma if I’m not prepared to be open about my own experience.

I’m sure most of us who have struggled with mental health issues would want to end the stigma surrounding it but no one wants to be the first to stand up and admit that everything’s not all rosy for them. Even within Christian circles, people often still do not want to admit that they have problems, that every day isn’t filled with happiness and that we have the same struggles as others.

at some points I’d lost hope because of struggling with OCD

At the end of my internship we had to present our thoughts on the last year to our fellow interns. I felt I couldn’t be honest about the year without admitting what a huge influence OCD had had on it. I talked about the ‘highs’ of my year before stating that it had been really hard and that at some points I’d lost hope because of struggling with OCD. Even that small disclosure, admitting to 70-odd people what I would usually only tell in confidence to good friends, felt huge. Instantly the worry is that people who you don’t know are judging you or making assumptions about how you act.

OCD is so often stereotyped but actually not well understood by the majority so there are worries about the judgements people will make out of ignorance. For instance, I imagine that unless people actually ask me about it, the majority would have thought I repeatedly switch lights on and off or wash my hands. Don’t get me wrong: these are common and hugely destructive forms of OCD. However, as someone who has not struggled with those particular compulsions, it can feel hard to explain what goes on in my head.

[common assumptions about OCD] made explaining my OCD even harder because I feel like I don’t ‘fit the bill’

There’s been many a comical moment when, on disclosing OCD to friends, they’ve commented on my untidy room or the number of mugs that lie around unwashed for days. Whilst these are common and understandable assumptions, it’s made explaining my OCD even harder because I feel like I don’t ‘fit the bill’. When I first went to my doctor and she gave me the diagnosis, I disregarded it: ‘I’m not washing my hands or constantly rearranging the spoons, so it can’t be OCD’.

That’s why I am really grateful for the Channel 4 series ‘4 goes mad’ airing programmes this week on mental health issues and especially for ‘World’s Maddest Job Interview’ which aired last night. It was encouraging for me to see Amy, one of the people from the group selected as ‘most employable’, talking about her experience of OCD as ‘bad invasive thoughts’, which at points rendered her housebound and contemplating suicide.

it was hugely refreshing to hear someone express the same thoughts and feelings as me

My own experience of OCD has been much more similar to that and it was hugely refreshing to hear someone express the same thoughts and feelings as me. Both this and ‘A little bit OCD’ (the night before with comedian Jon Richardson) shed light on a relatively unknown mental disorder which has previously been treated as a quirky and sometimes comical set of ‘odd habits’. Thanks to these programmes, hopefully more people will understand that OCD is a destructive, world-consuming, life-inhibiting issue.

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