With around half a million Australians living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), mental health charity SANE Australia has launched a campaign that aims to combat some of the myths surrounding the highly misunderstood illness.
“It’s common to hear people joke about OCD,” SANE Australia Psychologist Suzanne Leckie explains.
“OCD is an illness, not a lifestyle choice and many people don’t realise how debilitating it can be.”
MYTH 1. People with OCD are just uptight, weird, neurotic, or quirky
“Obsessions and compulsions can be incredibly distressing and significantly disrupt daily life,” Ms Leckie said.
“People with OCD experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images or urges that are very distressing (obsessions), and they try to relieve this distress by engaging in specific kinds of repetitive thought or behaviour (compulsions). Compulsions momentarily relieve anxiety, but this relief is short-lived, and obsessions soon return creating a repetitive cycle of obsessive-compulsive thought and behaviour.”
Sydney resident Julie Leitch lived in fear that her family would die if she didn’t do everything perfectly for decades before seeking treatment for her OCD.
“Life was a living hell,” Ms Leitch said.
“When the alarm went off in the morning, I would start to cry because I knew my day would be filled with horrible thoughts, panic attacks and hours and hours of rituals.
“The simple thought of having to leave the house would send me into a panic attack as I was so worried one of my loved ones would die because of my actions.”
MYTH 2. People with OCD are just neat freaks or germaphobes
While orderliness and cleanliness are common in OCD, there are many other ways people can experience OCD. People with OCD might arrange, clean or check things for fear that something bad will happen if they don’t.
“Common fears can include thoughts about harming others, such as the fear you have run over someone in a car and returning repeatedly to the location to check, or being afraid of engaging in distressing acts of self-harm like avoiding balconies due to a fear that you will jump off them,” Ms Leckie says
Actor Luke Ford (Red Dog, Animal Kingdom) is no stranger to playing roles of characters living with mental illness. In The Black Balloon he starred as a severely autistic boy and in new film release What If It Works? he takes on the role of someone living with OCD.
“When I began research for the role, I discovered how much ignorance there is about OCD,” Mr Ford said.
“I myself thought it was people who were just clean freaks or germaphobes.
“I had no idea how crippling this illness could be and how much it can impact relationships, work and everyday way of life.
“My character is intriguing as he wants to venture out into the world but at the same time he is very isolated and lonely as he grapples with the challenges of living with OCD.
“I feel it’s a responsibility to me as an actor to inhabit a role like this to help encourage a greater understanding and respect for people living with mental illness.”
MYTH 3. People with OCD don’t realise they’re acting irrationally
“In most cases people with OCD know what they are thinking and doing is irrational. Only a small percentage of people with OCD think their behaviours are reasonable,” Ms Leckie says.
Julie used to hide her rituals as she knew they didn’t make sense.
“I knew I was being irrational but I couldn't take the risk that somebody might die if I didn’t do everything perfectly,” Ms Leitch said.
“You look at the person beside you and they’re not washing their hands ten times or tapping the walls before they leave a room, but they may be hiding their compulsions.”
MYTH 4. OCD is funny
OCD is often the subject of jokes, but it can be an incredibly frustrating condition that can take a significant psychological toll.
Left untreated, OCD can severely limit a person’s ability to engage with others socially, maintain meaningful employment and participate in activities they enjoy.
“There’s nothing humorous about being trapped by compulsive behaviour and constantly experiencing intrusive horrifying thoughts,” Ms Leckie explains.
“Around 40 per cent of people with OCD experience depression at some time in their life and the risk of death by suicide in people with OCD is approximately ten times higher than in the general population.”
How to get help
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of OCD, it’s important to consult a doctor or mental health professional.
For Julie, treatment was life-changing.
“You can live really well if you get the right treatment for OCD,” Ms Leitch said.
“I can now walk out of that house without spending hours checking and I don’t have to constantly ring people and check on their health.
“I got my life back after treatment.”
Anyone looking for information, support and guidance from mental health professionals can contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263 or firstname.lastname@example.org from 10am-10pm AEST. The SANE Online Forums bring together the lived experience of individuals, families, friends and carers in a safe, anonymous and supportive environment.
For more information on OCD, visit the SANE Australia website.