Don’t Be Afraid of the Word “Disorder”

By Bradley C. Riemann, Ph.D. Director, OCD Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital

I have assessed and treated many young people with OCD.  Typically, towards the end of my initial meeting with them and their parents I begin to explain what OCD is, and how common it is, etc.  I break down OCD by obsessions (unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images and impulses that cause anxiety) compulsions (some repetitive or ritualistic act that is done to neutralize the obsessive thought or get rid of the anxiety that the obsessive thought causes) and the word disorder.

Many times I see a confused or frightened look on the young person’s face (and sometimes the parent’s as well) when we begin to talk about the word disorder.  You can almost read their minds thinking, “Oh my God, I have a disorder!  Does he think I’m crazy?  Am I crazy?”  The answer to these questions is “No”, and “No”.  Having a disorder does not make you crazy nor does your treating professional think you are crazy.  Repeat.  You are not crazy!

Sad though it is, mental health disorders do continue to carry a stigma — OCD is no different. This stigma burdens patients and leads some to refuse evidence-based treatment options that can serve to improve quality of life. This process plays out in individuals who never discuss their symptoms with a health professional and those who balk at the idea of accepting help upon hearing a diagnosis. Stigma surrounding mental health undoubtedly remains embedded in certain institutions and in society as a whole. This stigma can be either reinforced or challenged by the actions and behavior of people, media,  and governments. It may also be influenced (positively or negatively) by portrayals of mental health disorders in works of fiction. While this is an important conversation, it is beyond the scope of this particular article. The crucial point is that you simply cannot allow stigma to stand in the way of access to diagnosis and treatment. We all have a role in fighting stigma, but we must also acknowledge that it is a fight that cannot be won overnight.

The word disorder is simply the term doctors use to describe the interference or disruption that the obsessions and compulsions that you are experiencing are causing in your life.  Or to put it into terminology consistent with this webpage, the “chaos” that these symptoms are causing in your life.  That’s all that word means.  It is nothing to be afraid or embarrassed of.  The object of treatment for OCD is to reduce the obsessions and compulsions to a point where they are no longer causing interference or disorder in your life.  Thankfully, for most OCD sufferers that is a realistic goal.

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