We are disappointed by the Minister of Health’s choice of words this morning. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is a mental health condition that can be debilitating. It is widely misunderstood and the myth that people who live with OCD are just extra-committed to cleanliness creates barriers to recovery, treatment and understanding. Flippant use of the term “OCD” contributes to misunderstandings and strengthens these barriers and we would have hoped the Minister of Health would have been more mindful of this and chosen his words more carefully. It is not time for New Zealanders to all experience a debilitating mental illness – it is simply time for all of us to commit to stringent hygiene practices that will safeguard our whānau and communities. This message can be conveyed without resorting to thoughtless stereotypes about OCD that dilute the seriousness of the condition and make it hard for those who do experience to get help and understanding.
People who live with OCD experience repeated and obsessive intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images or urges. These cause great anxiety and can be extremely distressing. People try to find different ways to find relief or ease their distress by engaging in compulsions – repeated actions or behaviours that they feel driven to do, even when they know they are unnecessary or don’t make sense. Often, performing the compulsive action makes people feel a little better at first, but their anxiety returns and compulsive behaviour can escalate.
For some people, these obsessions and compulsions take over their lives and cause significant distress and disruption, impacting their ability to work, take part in society and have supportive relationships.
Obsessions and compulsions about cleanliness are not uncommon for people who have OCD, but they are not the only way people experience OCD. For those who do experience obsessions and compulsions about cleanliness, it’s important to understand this is not just a general desire to live in a clean and tidy environment. Their cleaning behaviours are driven by a deep anxiety that, for example, if they do not perform these behaviours then something terrible will happen to them, their whānau or the world. For the most part, they know these fears are not rational but that does not diminish the strong feelings they are experiencing, and this causes frustration and low self-esteem.
We note that increasing fear and anxiety about Covid-19 has caused distress for many, especially those of us who already live with mental illness. OCD and other mental health problems can be triggered by stress. We urge everyone who is talking about the virus to be mindful of this and seek to ensure people have enough information to feel confident and reassured that they can look after their own health and the health of the people around them without inciting panic or anxiety.