Is Humor Reinforcing the OCD Stigma?

by Bill Brenner on September 7, 2012

I got an interesting response to some older posts about OCD gag gifts — particularly one about OCD hand sanitizer. The reader was worried these gifts and other brands of OCD humor would only reinforce the stigma monster that keeps people like us in the shadows.

Mood music:


Here’s the comment, from Arthur Lawrence:

I can laugh at it, and so can you. We both have OCD. And laughing at the OCD “monster” does indeed weaken it. This is a therapeutic application. What bothers me are the millions who have no idea what OCD really is.

For them, products like this continue to trivialize OCD and help keep those millions uninformed about this disease.

Should we now have “Tourette itch powder”? It would be about as appropriate as this product. Again, I don’t dispute what you say about laughing at one’s own “mental defects.” But I do know that OCD research and treatment are still in the dark ages, relatively speaking. And products like this, out in the general public, aren’t going to get people to believe that OCD can be as debilitating as cancer. It needs to be taken as seriously as cancer.

Mocking it will almost certainly not help that to happen.

Arthur makes an important point.

I still firmly believe that humor is an important coping tool for someone learning to manage depressive mental disorders. Abraham Lincoln, a chronically depressed man for much of his adult life, relied on it during the darkest days of the Civil War. He reveled in telling jokes and amusing stories. It helped get him through the pain, long before antidepressants were created.

But the stigma around OCD is still alive and well. I see people all the time talking about “their OCD” when they’re really talking about their Type-A personalities. That doesn’t bother me much, but I know other OCD cases that get wounded by such talk. OCD behavior is still the stuff of ridicule and belittling. People will still make fun of a person’s quirks, which embarrasses and hurts that person when they inevitably find out they’re being made fun of.

Would people find the gags funny if they were about cancer or Tourettes? The truth is that we think differently about physical diseases than mental diseases. We understand the ramifications of physical diseases better and they’re more socially acceptable in that regard. And when a physical disease is a lethal one, we have much less tolerance for jokes about it. Yet people will make jokes about all manner of things for all kinds of reasons.

In the final analysis, I think most health issues need to be addressed with a combination of sober education and humor. People need to know the suffering real OCD brings about, just as people need to know the anguish a cancer patient experiences.

But we need to laugh at our conditions once in a while, too, because the laughter makes the disease appear smaller, even if it’s only for a few moments.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Stella September 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I’m glad to see you wrote about this topic. I came across many OCD – and other psychiatric jokes myself and wanted to suggest you to write about it. But I guess I was too slow 🙂
I am also the opinion that we shouldn’t take our own state too seriously and laughing at it can really help feel better. However, many of the people making these types of jokes have absolutely no idea what OCD (I’m taking it as an example) is. They are guided by questionable stereotypes they see on TV or the Internet. You can go to tumblr and search for the keyword “OCD” and you will already have a full page of teenage girls claiming they are “sooooo OCD” because they sorted their clothes after colours or because they simply like to live in a clean environment.
This is just a mild example. I’ve seen many quite tasteless and offensive jokes out there. Like this, for example:
How should a person who has this illness feel about it? That his state is indeed ridiculous and the society doesn’t take him seriously?
I therefore think only people who have these illnesses should be allowed to make jokes about it and maybe also only tell them in their own circle in order to not be misunderstood by others.

D3 FARM GOLD June 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Aww, the original Road Rash was one of the primary game I ever played at the Megadrive, and one of the few I was still playing in general too. Hope they dont just morph it into a boring racer, nothing beats the entertainment of kicking another rider for an oncoming car) In lieu of hoofing it back on the bike when you fall off it would be nice if you you would clothesline oncoming riders and also other… P

ObsessiveAni July 26, 2013 at 2:31 am

I have OCD, and have for years. The misconceptions and biases people have regarding it make it that much harder to deal with. I already feel ashamed and humiliated by this disease: I really don’t need any help in that department.
I’m all for humour but, as you said, the issue is ignorance. Humour helps us bear it because we understand just how terrible it really is: when the humour is coming from those who don’t even understand
-what- it is, then it can quickly just become teasing. I’m not about to go around licensing who can and can’t make these jokes, but for goodness’ sake, be careful. The difference is this: laughing at OCD versus delegitimizing a hellacious daily struggle/laughing -at- people with OCD.
As for being “so OCD” the next person I hear that from is going to think twice about it forever after. On days when I’m particularly struggling, I don’t need to hear about how somebody thinks that the disease which has ruined my life is equivalent to their proclivity to fold their underpants. Imagine somebody saying “Yeah, I get sick a lot: I must have AIDS.” Imagine that you’re in the room, and you have HIV. Same thing with “I’m so OCD.” It’s incorrect, and it’s disrespectful.

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