That one picture hanging slightly crooked on the wall. The car stereo volume left on an uneven number. The one floor tile that breaks the pattern. There are plenty of things that can make our skin start to crawl because they’re just a little bit … off.
And, in these scenarios we tend to break out that little acronym that so perfectly describes those annoying little ticks: OCD. But … did you know that saying we have—or a friend has—OCD is actually offensive? Huh? In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month let’s look at the problem with saying OCD in these contexts.
Well, first what is OCD?
These three little letters are most often used as an abbreviation for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Note the word disorder in this definition. It’s about to become important.
According to the National Institutes of Health, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that they feel the urge to repeat over and over.
In this case, disorder means “a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions.” It’s not just an irregularity (although that is another definition of disorder). It’s a medical condition.
In fact, OCD has been on doctors’ radar for hundreds of years.
The term is believed to have entered the lexicon back in the 1600s when English scholar Robert Burton reported a case of “obsessive compulsive disorder” in his compendium the Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. At the time, the term was tied to religious melancholy.
Fast forward to the 19th century, when obsessive compulsive disorder began to take on a more modern definition as doctors began to distinguish between compulsions (strong, usually irresistible impulses to perform acts, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will) and impulsions (inciting influence of some feeling or motive).
By 2013, the editors of the diagnosis manual of the American Psychiatric Association had determined they should devote an entire subsection of their book to obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. Dubbed the DSM V or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, the book split anxiety disorders into three separate sections for the first time, separating out obsessive-compulsive disorders as a group of separate disorders that included obsessive-compulsive disorder itself, as well as body dysmorphic disorder, hoarding disorder, trichotillomania, and excoriation disorder.
The problem with OCD
These days, an estimated 2.2 million adults, or 1 percent of the US population, live with OCD. That’s more people than the population of the entire state of Rhode Island or the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While its exact cause is unknown, there are a number of factors that put folks at a higher risk, including genetics and brain structure.
It’s diagnosable by a medical practitioner and often treated with pharmaceuticals … making OCD not unlike diabetes, psoriasis, and thousands of other medical conditions that real people deal with every day. So, after learning that, we realized that the casual usage of OCD to define our slight neurosis about our need for perfect symmetry was actually kind of like using diabetes to make a self-deprecating joke. Not as funny …
OCD is one of dozens of English words and acronyms that have become what’s known as ableist language. Sometimes the words are OK to use, as in describing a medical condition. More often they’re not OK to use, as in using OCD as a joking way to refer to something other than that medical condition. Ableist language turns a person’s disability or medical condition into a pejorative, which means to make something derogatory or to belittle something. And as a dictionary, we don’t want to use words in a way that makes people feel lesser than.
So, we’re changing our mindset and our usage of OCD … here’s how.
What to use instead …
The good news is there are better words to use in place of OCD when you’re talking about something other than the psychiatric condition. Thesaurus.com offers up all of these non-ableist synonyms to use instead: