Dear New York Times, I do mind if you say you have ‘a little OCD’

On Jan. 22, the New York Times published an article by Maia Szalavitz titled, “I Don’t Mind if You Say You Have ‘a Little OCD’”. Szalavitz, a journalist who specializes in drug addiction, made the case that using words like ‘OCD’ and ‘ADHD’ to describe yourself, even if you don’t have the disorders the terms refers to, is helpful for those who are diagnosed. 

For those with obsessive compulsive disorder, the source of the ‘cleanliness’ is an unmanageable fear that, for many, dictates their lives

The article centers on the idea that when people can relate to others, they become more empathetic and help break down stereotypes about mental illness. She states that recognizing neurodiversity, the idea that people’s minds interact with the world in different ways, will humanize people with mental disorders to those around them. 

While the argument on the surface makes sense; relating builds understanding, understanding builds empathy and we all know the world needs more empathy. But there is a logical leap in Szalavitz’s argument- using disorders as adjectives does not build understanding. It does quite the opposite, in fact. 

Szalavitz argued that using mental and developmental disorders as adjectives would make them relatable to those who don’t struggle with mental health and would increase empathy to those who do suffer from the disorders. 

However, the way people use these terms is everything but informed. A person who states that they’re ‘soooo OCD’ doesn’t refer to actual symptoms of OCD, or more accurately put Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They refer to being a neat freak, maybe the need of order and organization. But as Everyday Health puts, that’s an inaccurate view of OCD. For those with obsessive compulsive disorder, the source of the ‘cleanliness’ is an unmanageable fear that, for many, dictates their lives. Not only that, OCD isn’t limited to neatness. 

So no, needing your pencils in rainbow order or washing your hands before eating doesn’t mean you have ‘a little OCD’. It may make you a neat freak, may be a perfectionist. But it doesn’t make you ‘a little’ of one of the most debilitating mental illnesses. And spreading the idea that it does does nothing to destigmatize OCD. All it does is create a skewed, inaccurate, and watered down view of OCD, only further isolating those who do suffer from it.

And this issue doesn’t only harm those diagnosed with these disorders. Many suffer without knowing that the source of their troubles might be a disorder. And when disordered traits become normalized in people’s eyes, those who may benefit from a diagnosis may ignore their symptoms, chalking it up to regular behaviors. Through this, they lose access to treatment, medication, and support that could significantly improve their lives. 

Not only can this type of behavior create a watered down understanding of what a condition is and limit access to care, it can also demonize those who suffer from more stigmatized disorders. Often, you’ll hear people call people they think are unstable and erratic “bipolar”, or call people who are egotistical “narcissistic.” 

Szalavitz fails to see how harmful using disorders as adjectives is- there’s perfectly good words to describe what you’re experiencing, ones that would be infinitely more accurate and descriptive. People’s illnesses are not some of them. Call yourself a neat freak, call yourself energetic, call yourself moody, call your ex egotistical. But OCD, ADHD, bipolar, and narcissist aren’t the terms you’re looking for. Because there’s a better way to communicate your feelings, without abstracting people’s views of debilitating disorders. So yes, I do mind if you say you’re ‘a little OCD’.