Occasionally in my editorial work, I’ll come across OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) being used as an adjective or a descriptive phrase to talk about someone’s personality, usually in a way that’s meant to be “quirky”:
- He was OCD about his work life, which was beneficial in some ways
- She was a bit OCD, always needing her desk to be neat
- She was suited to being a proofreader since she’d always been a little OCD
- The Instagram video on how to fold clothes satisfied her OCD tendencies
- … and the list goes on
These phrases, and similar ones, tend to be used casually and offhand to describe a character who doesn’t actually have OCD. It’s used in place of being organised, neat, or a perfectionist. The author may not realise they’re doing it, or may not understand why this might be a problem.
There are a number of reasons this type of language is non-inclusive and detrimental. If you don’t know what inclusive language is, it means using language in a mindful way so as to avoid excluding a particular group of people – usually marginalised or underrepresented groups, such as those with mental health problems or disabilities.
So why can using OCD as an adjective or personality trait be exclusionary and harmful?
It contributes to stereotypes and stigma
OCD is a broad disorder – it doesn’t just involve physical compulsions, like counting as you tap something, although it can do. Some people suffer from obsessive, intrusive thoughts rather than physical compulsions. Both symptoms can be very difficult to live with.
Suggesting that OCD is being tidy or organised trivialises the disorder, adding to stigma. This leads to people who genuinely suffer from OCD being fearful of coming forward for help, or being too afraid to discuss their condition openly with others. It’s this type of trivialisation that leads to comments like “Oh, it can’t be that bad, can it?” This can also lead to mental health conditions not being taken seriously in wider society.
It over-simplifies what it’s like to live with OCD
As I mentioned, OCD is a broad and wide-ranging disorder. No two people experience it in the same way, but the symptoms can be very distressing:
- Frequent obsessive thoughts – These thoughts are often unwanted, sudden and distressing. They can be images or urges (such as a loved one coming to harm, or the fear that you’ll “lose control” and harm someone yourself) and tend to cause a lot of anxiety.
- Compulsive behaviours – These are behaviours or acts that are repeated to attempt to bring about some control or relief over the obsessive thought, or the anxiety the thought brings on. For instance, straightening towels in a certain way might make you believe you won’t lose control, or that the ritual will stop the bad thing from happening.
Not everyone with OCD experiences both of these things. Some people just experience the obsessive thoughts without the compulsive behaviours. For some, the compulsions may be milder, and for others they may interfere with daily life.
It paints OCD as a “quirk” or personality trait, not a serious condition
OCD is a clinically recognised condition. It isn’t a personality trait like being tidy or a perfectionist or organised; you don’t go on medication or have treatment for a trait. People who have OCD are often treated with therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or medication. If you frame OCD as an adjective/“quirky” personality trait in your fiction, that adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness. It could even lead to your readers taking it less seriously if they were to encounter someone suffering from the disorder in real life.
I always encourage writers to consider how they use language surrounding mental health conditions. It’s not always done consciously – most of the time, the writer isn’t even aware they’re doing it. It’s not just limited to OCD being used as an adjective or quirk either; you may write that your character is “a little depressed” that he couldn’t get his favourite food from a restaurant, or that a character playfully making someone else jump “almost brought on a panic attack”. This type of language can be equally harmful, adding to stigma and stereotypes.
It isn’t about “policing” language as some tend to believe; it’s just that being mindful of how we use language in our writing and how that can have real-life consequences is important for us to grow as a society.
Sometimes the discourse around inclusive language can be confusing, and I also want to acknowledge that there is room for metaphor and not all words need to be altered or erased – for this reason, it’s important to look at your language carefully, consider the context, do your research on the communities you may be excluding or stigmatising, and make an informed decision based on that.
Only by considering the way we talk about mental health will we be able to lessen stigma and stereotypes, and avoid transferring these to readers. Here are some additional resources on inclusive language and mental health:
- BuzzFeed’s style guidelines on writing about mental health – Some useful information on word choice and people-first language.
- Mental illness: Terms to avoid. Terms to use – HealthPartners’ list of mental health words to use and to avoid.
- Language Matters in Mental Health – The Hogg Foundation has a useful chart on respectful language around mental health.
- An infographic from Feminism India on why words matter when we’re talking about mental health.
- Mind Your Language: A Guide to Talking About Mental Health from the Huffington Post.