“I’m sooooo OCD!” – something I think many of us have heard or seen written. I find it astonishing to still hear this so frequently, particularly in 2023 when there tends to be a greater understanding and awareness of mental health disorders. So why are there still so many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding OCD? To what extent does the portrayal of characters on film and TV with OCD feed misconceptions and lead to a belief that it is OK to use OCD as an adjective or humorous trait?
OCD – affecting many, but poorly understood
OCD-UK estimate that approximately three quarter of a million people in UK population are living with OCD at any one time. However the disorder is still poorly understood by the general public, with most tending to describe OCD either in terms of compulsions or perfectionism [Stewart et al. 2019]. When we do not have first-hand knowledge of a disorder such as OCD, we tend to substitute second hand information, such as what we see on television. All of this leads to a danger that incorrect perceptions are formed if OCD is not portrayed in an accurate way.
When we think of the portrayal of characters with OCD on film and TV, key ones that tend to spring to mind are Adrian Monk in Monk, Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory and Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets. However, the depictions of these characters are largely based on stereotypes, such as excessive concerns with cleanliness and organisation, and portrayed in a negative, even comical way, that reinforces the stigma of mental illness. These examples do so in the following ways:
- Focus on the compulsions (the what) without portraying the obsessions (the why)
- OCD is used for comical affect / humour
- Show OCD developing following a trauma or ‘reason’
- Show OCD as being obsessed with cleanliness, germs or organisation
Showing the ‘what’ without showing ‘why’
One of the frequent criticisms of the portrayal of OCD in film and TV is that the compulsions are shown in isolation without showing the reasons behind them. For instance, a character may be shown walking through a doorway multiple times, but it fails to show that this is because they are having intrusive thoughts and are conducting this action to prevent this thought from becoming true. This leads to the audience not truly understanding what the disorder involves. We are therefore frequently left with an incomplete picture of what someone with OCD experiences. Visually telling the inner turmoil is difficult, and perhaps writers/directors need to explore narrative methods for ensuring the inner struggle is depicted and explained.
Showing the compulsions for comedy value
In addition, compulsions are often shown in a comedic sense, which trivialises OCD and implies it is something to be laughed at. For instance, in the TV show Monk, the character Adrian Monk, who has OCD, is frequently involved in funny incidents due to the disorder. Similarly, Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory is shown needing to knock three times without interruption, but this again is treated in a humorous way. Whilst this type of portrayal may help normalise neurodiversity, the danger is that the true compassion and understanding of how to support people with OCD is lost in its portrayal as a curiosity.
The other side of OCD
Film and TV nearly always show characters with OCD as being obsessed with cleanliness, germs or organisation. In reality, only around a quarter of people with OCD have this part of the disorder. Admittedly, this part of OCD is much easier to display visually for the audience - but it leaves three-quarters of sufferers with an experience that does not match what is shown on screen. The failure to look at OCD outside of this stereotypical view, means that it leaves viewers with the misconception that OCD always involves cleanliness or tidiness. It is heavily responsible for the ‘I’m sooo OCD’ misconception and reinforces a belief that anyone with a preference for organisation must have OCD. It also means that the 75% who do not have these traits, are not adequately represented.
Incorrect cause and treatment
TV and Film also does not accurately portray the causes and treatment of OCD. Often a character will develop OCD after a ‘life event.’ For example, in Monk, OCD dramatically interferes in the main character’s life after his wife is murdered. Whilst stress/trauma in life can worsen the disorder, it is very typical of the representation of mental illness in TV/film in that there must be a reason why it has occurred, which is often not an accurate portrayal of OCD in real life. Equally, TV/film often shows the disorder ‘disappearing’ without any treatment, or in some cases the treatment is not suitable for those with the disorder. In As Good as it Gets, the main character learns compassion and love, and in turn his symptoms begin to fade, offering a romantic view of recovery.
The impact of false portrayal
The impact of this is that the stereotypical, negative, and inaccurate depictions can have serious implications for people living with OCD. This is particularly the case for those experiencing symptoms but who may not yet have a diagnosis, or people who live and work with such individuals. An inaccurate portrayal can cause harm due to:
- It leading to a lack of compassion and understanding for those living with OCD. If people understand it better, they are likely to be able to provide greater support
- It trivialises the disorder and could lead to people not feeling they can speak about their experiences as they don’t fit with the widely understood ‘norm’
- It may lead those undiagnosed to not see examples that they can relate to, leading to a feeling of alienation of failure to recognise that they may need support
OCD is a deeply misunderstood illness, and elements of the disorder, particularly around intrusive thoughts can be harder to portray visually. As we gain a greater understanding about OCD and mental health as a whole, I would encourage writers and directors to be brave and bold in finding narratives to depict the inner struggle and diversity of OCD. It is very easy to focus on the external and seemingly more ‘interesting’ aspects of how OCD can present itself when considering a narrative for TV/film. However, an inaccurate portrayal can have damaging effects. Engaging with OCD charities and user groups will help to ensure that characters are portrayed accurately. True representation of those with OCD can only bring benefits to both those with OCD and the general public.
Lindsey Stack, May 2023
 Obsessions tend to relate to a perceived repercussion and trauma associated with beliefs of not undertaking the compulsion https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/overview/