Watch Your Mouth: How Turns of Phrase Belittle Mental Illness

‘I’m so depressed…’

‘She’s such a psycho…’

‘Sorry, I’m a little bit OCD!’

You’ve probably heard all of these phrases more than once – perhaps even used them yourself. They seem harmless enough in the moment, but in the long term the colloquialization of these phrases in everyday conversation could be adding to the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety have received more mainstream coverage in recent years, meaning that there’s a more widespread understanding of the conditions. However, OCD is still somewhat misunderstood, and the generalization of the term isn’t helping.

The truth is, it’s not possible to be ‘a little bit’ OCD. Perhaps you’re a very tidy person; you like things to be just so. Maybe you wash your hands a lot, or keep a hand sanitiser in your handbag because you like to stay clean. Often, the majority of the population have the intrusive thoughts associated with OCD – did you lock the front door? Have you left the oven on…? The important things is that to most people, these thoughts are just in passing and it’s easy enough to reassure yourself.  However, for an OCD sufferer, it’s not that simple.

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a mental illness that affects approximately 1.2% of the UK’s population and is the 4th most prevalent mental illness regardless of race, gender and nationality. OCD is categorised as ‘a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, often followed by repetitive compulsions, impulses or urges.’ (OCD UK) The immense anxiety that accompanies the condition means it is often debilitating, leaving sufferers unable to continue with work or their everyday lives due to the fear of causing harm to a loved one or stranger.

For OCD sufferers, the overwhelming fear of germs and contamination won’t disappear when they wash their hands. Their level of anxiety stays at its highest until they have performed an action that they see as ‘safe’ – a compulsion. Sufferers are aware that the anxiety OCD causes is unwarranted, however they believe that the only way to rid themselves of that anxiety is to act on their compulsions. It’s a vicious cycle, with even the smallest seeming risk overwhelming the logical part of the brain. However, it isn’t as simple as increased anxiety, but a persistent feeling of dread and constant suspense; feeling as though something awful will happen if the sufferer doesn’t give in to their compulsions. It’s a consuming and terrifying disorder, with an almost unimaginable intensity that can be extremely hard to get away from. Recovery from OCD is possible, but it’s a long and difficult journey.

It’s clear to see how vastly different OCD is from being ‘tidy’ – but with the phrase being passively used as a description of personality traits rather than a serious mental condition, we’re simultaneously creating stigma and belittling the awareness that sufferers have worked hard to build. Of course, it’s vastly unintentional, but by using the term correctly we can help raise awareness of the condition and its severity.

OCD UK are a charity working towards creating understanding and de-stigmatising OCD. Their current project ‘Are You A Little Bit OCD?’ creates a conversation with the public regarding the flippant use of the term, in a bid to help people better understand the stigma that currently still surrounds the illness. By using the term ‘OCD’ to describe regular behaviours, it can begin to desensitise people to the severity the term represents. However there is progress being made; recent literature such as John Green’s ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ and Bryony Gordon’s ‘Mad Girl’ are both wonderful examples of the depth of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and there is beginning to be more mainstream media coverage, such as comedian John Richardson’s openness about his struggle with the illness.

While it is true that some people do show behaviours symptomatic of obsessive compulsive disorder from time to time, it’s more often than not down to personal preference, rather than an innate compulsion to do so.

If you’re looking for more information on OCD, visit the OCD UK website –


Hazel Kaye

Image Credit: Life Noggin