In one of the three winning entries from our Mental Health Awareness Week competition with Mind Your Head Society, Hannah Barr urges us to look behind the stereotypes of conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and to listen to real experiences, like her own, which might enable us to help those feeling the strain of student life…
I think I speak on behalf of all finalists when I say that this term is stress central: there’s CV-pimping, dissertations and job applications; along with that sinking feeling that time is running out and increasing worry over what number or numbers will appear on the degree certificate come July.
But there’s something that makes me different to the majority of finalists: I believe that there is a degree classification which, if I get it, my mum will die. How will I ensure that doesn’t happen? Put as much work in as possible. Oh, and constantly click my fingers in blocks of seven. Again, and again, and again.
There’s no reason why my mum should die. She’s only 52, the biggest workplace hazard she faces are rabbits frolicking in the car park and I’m reasonably confident she’s not secretly involved in any mafia organisations. But in my head, I just worry she’s not got long left unless I click my fingers to seven. Again, and again, and again.
You see, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, (OCD). I’m guessing you think I’m meticulously tidy and enter public toilets using my elbows. Actually, I’m really not fussed by germs. I’m pretty sure there are enough crumbs in my bag right now to sustain a couple of hamsters for a while. My compulsions are small, weird things like clicking my fingers seven times and having to read things of nine syllables. I can’t explain it and I know it’s irrational – but I can’t help it. We all have idiosyncrasies which make us unique and peculiar and sometimes a bit irritating, but the difference for someone with OCD is that these foibles are overwhelming, inescapable and failure to comply with them can have, in their mind, fatal consequences.
Public perception doesn’t help. OCD is either cute and cuddly like its portrayal by comedians such as David Mitchell and Jon Richardson, where it’s adorable to wind them up over not switching the oven off or by hiding their hand sanitizer. Or OCD is freaky and gross and hilarious, as in Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Hoarders.
Wikipedia might help out my degree, but it doesn’t help alleviate the stigma surrounding OCD, describing sufferers as appearing ‘paranoid or potentially psychotic’ and that we may have a ‘preoccupation with sexual, violent or religious thoughts.’ I know I’m a Christian, studying Theology, and I have a job offer with a church, but I’m reasonably confident that side to me is rational rather than compulsive!
I’m really lucky; I’m able to eventually control my compulsions whereas many with OCD can be house-bound or need in-patient treatment. I just need anti-anxiety medication and to sit on my hands. We’re not crazy; we’re frightened. As irrational as the motivations behind our compulsions may be, they can be scary and seem really real. Mocking doesn’t help us and stereotyping doesn’t help us – but having a bit more patience with us does.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, look at the person behind the stereotype. You may not understand why OCD sufferers do the things they do – heck, I don’t always know why I do the things I do! But it’s better to ask than to assume, and believe me, we really want to be listened to.
If you’re feeling stressed or affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can book an appointment, or find out more information, with the University’s Wellbeing centre here. You can also talk to Voice, who offer a confidential service run by students, for students, here.bookmark me