The national conversation about mental health has usually been one involving blame, ridicule, and shame. It wasn’t until semi-recently, with the introduction of singer Demi Lovato’s new “Be Vocal: Speak Up For Mental Health” initiative, that we are finally starting a serious discussion about the stigma that many people with mental illnesses face.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard comments like, “Just get over it,” “It’s all in your head,” and my personal favorite, “Why can’t you just ignore it?” directed towards those with mental health issues. I should know; after all, I am one of the nearly 1 in 25 people (13.6 million adults total) who is living with a mental illness in America (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Often, these words were said by people that I consider my friends, coworkers, and even family. Honestly though, I can’t really blame them for their attitudes towards me and my mental illness, because they (and I) live in a society that stigmatizes mental health and makes it into a problem that no one feels comfortable talking about. That is why I am choosing to break my silence and talk about an issue that has deeply and profoundly affected my life, so that perhaps others will also feel comfortable coming forward and speaking about their own struggles.
One of the biggest challenges of my life to date has been learning how to live with my mental health disorder, which in my case happens to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Many people may think that they know what OCD is (lots of handwashing, right?), based on funny movies or television shows they’ve watched that often mistake or exaggerate what it’s like to have OCD. I’m here to say that OCD is no laughing matter. There is nothing cute or funny about it, no glamour or glory in having it. Just as people suffer from cancer or the flu, I suffer from OCD. Just as others’ bodies are sick, my brain also has an illness.
In case you don’t know, OCD is a neurobiological disorder that “is characterized by obsessions and compulsions that take up at least an hour a day – but usually longer – and cause significant distress” (BeyondOCD.org). It causes severe anxiety that can only be relieved through some sort of ritual or compulsion that is usually unique to the individual person suffering from it. Even though most people, myself included, with this disease know that their compulsions are irrational, they still have to perform their ritual in order to relieve their anxiety.
Up until now, I have kept publicly silent about my OCD diagnosis because I did not want my illness to be dismissed or disregarded as something that is “just in my head.” Believe me, if I could unload this OCD burden from my shoulders, I would drop it in a heartbeat, as I’m sure many others with mental illnesses would agree. Not only has OCD caused me to behave in weird ways and thus effectively ostracized me from many social groups, but it has also sabotaged relationships that I’ve attempted to have, caused me to miss out on important life events, and even, at times, has made me doubt my own worthiness as a human being. I didn’t ask for this, and I’m certainly not making it up. Why would I – or any other person for that matter – want or choose to live in a world that causes us constant stress, anxiety, and ostracizes us from one another? Many people do not understand that I would give almost anything to be rid of this disease.
But, in their defense, how would they possibly know? Until recently, there has been no discourse of any kind that has attempted to talk about mental health in America in terms of its effects on the sufferers.
I was born with OCD, and just as people manage to live with and treat conditions like asthma and diabetes, I have learned, through therapy and other methods, to at least coexist with my disease and its symptoms. America needs to stand up and be bold about why talking about mental health is important, and how we can start to change the stigma of mental illness from something that is to be ashamed of, and transform it into something that we can fight together.