OCD a frequent pop culture punchline

Most people wouldn't make fun of someone with a mental health issue. So why do jokes about obsessive compulsive disorder seem to be so common?
Sorting and organizing can be a marker for OCD. (Ryan Leighty/Flickr)

Most people wouldn't make fun of someone with a mental health issue. So why do jokes about obsessive compulsive disorder seem to be so common? 

OCD is frequently used in casual way, or as a punchline, which is no laughing matter for those who treat people with the anxiety disorder.

In the hit TV show, The Big Bang Theory, one of the main characters, Sheldon, is made fun of because he won't drink from the same glass as his friend. It's a recurring joke on the show and Sheldon's obsessive tendencies are portrayed as being irrational and good for a laugh. The characters also label it as OCD.

It's just one of the many places you'll see references these days to the disorder. A quick search on Twitter reveals hashtags such as "obsessive Christmas disorder," presumably for people who love the holiday season. Buzzfeed posted an article titled "33 Meticulous Cleaning Tricks For The OCD Person Inside You." 

Debbie Sookman said it does a disservice to the many people who actually suffer with OCD. She's director of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic at the McGill University Health Centre and president of The Canadian Institute for Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.​

Sookman said comedic characterizations of the disorder, like the one on The Big Bang Theory, aren't funny. "What's implied in that snippet is the person who's afraid of drinking the water is overreacting," she explained. "That's helpful, except to define overreaction you have to contextualize it so it's helpful to give valid information about OCD. It's not helpful to laugh."

Sookman said over a million Canadians have OCD, which is about three per cent of the country. Several celebrities like Howie Mandel and mixed martial artist Georges St. Pierre have spoken out about their struggles with OCD.

But Sookman said many people suffer in silence. She added that if obsessive thoughts and rituals are taking at least an hour of your day, interfering with your life and causing distress, you should get help.
Sookman said there are treatments available but there aren't nearly enough qualified experts to treat OCD. "The dire difficulty is the insufficient number of clinicians and sites qualified to deliver these evidence-based treatments. And so I would say that's the biggest obstacle for a person who's suffering but is uncertain of what's wrong and what to do about it to get timely and appropriate help."

But the good news is that Sookman says with proper treatment, OCD can now be managed. "It is the case now that many cases are curable. The person will no longer respond to inner experience by doing rituals. It doesn't mean they'll never feel distress or have an intrusive thought but they'll respond to it differently."

Despite what keeps popping up on sitcoms, Sookman said the only way to change how OCD is presented is to continue to deliver accurate information about the disorder.


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