The vilification of people with OCD must stop

A few days ago, an article appeared in the ‘Long Reads’ section of the BBC News website. The stories it told were so egregiously unfair, I struggled to read the piece through to the end.

The article focused on a handful of people whose admission of their mental health condition resulted in their lives being completely upturned. For people with OCD, intrusive thoughts can be a major problem. They often focus on things that are important to the individual and warp them into deeply upsetting images or thought patterns that seem to get worse the more the individual worries about them or tries to get them to go away.

For Matt (name changed), one of the people in the BBC article, the intrusive thoughts concerned random people – especially family members – popping up in his head during sexual intercourse with his partner. This was obviously deeply disturbing for Matt but the more he tried to bat the thoughts away, the worse they became.

Some people with OCD develop methods (compulsions) to try and ward off the thoughts or mitigate them somehow, but it doesn’t help. The obsessive part of the illness often worsens. For Matt, this led to a crisis. When he told a mental health nurse, they made a safeguarding referral to social services, despite the fact that people with OCD are highly unlikely to act on their intrusive thoughts:

“There has never been a recorded case of a person with OCD acting on their intrusive thoughts, according to Professor David Veale, a consultant psychiatrist regarded as the UK’s leading specialist in OCD”.

Because Matt’s job involved working with children, he was suspended pending an investigation triggered by the referral. More devastatingly, he was also told that he would not be allowed contact with his own son.

The decision to make a safeguarding referral because someone is suffering from OCD is completely and utterly wrong and only happens because of a complete lack of specialist knowledge. NICE guidelines state that:

“… If medics are unsure about whether someone describing sexual or violent intrusive thoughts poses a risk, they ‘should consult mental health professionals with specific expertise in the assessment and management of OCD’, adding that these kinds of thoughts ‘are often misinterpreted as indicating risk’.”

Matt was not the only person with this kind of story. Lack of understanding when it comes to the role intrusive thoughts play in OCD is harming people. This is causing discrimination, the consequences of which are utterly horrifying to me. And let’s be clear, OCD can fall under the definition of disability:

“You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” (Taken from Gov.UK).

So, what we’re reading about here is unfair treatment of people with an impairment because of ignorance and lack of specialist know-how in health organisations. This is a very difficult pill to swallow.

The story affected me personally, as several years ago I developed OCD after a sexual assault. The intrusive thoughts mainly revolved around that event, but they came at me in other ways too. I’d convince myself that I’d run over or hit an animal while driving and then try to reply a specific fragment of my journey in an attempt to jog a memory I told myself I had concealed to spare my own feelings of guilt.

Once, after seeing a film with a graphic rape scene in it, I found myself replaying that scene over and over again. I kept thinking, “Just re-imagine it one more time and change the ending in your head so it doesn’t happen. Then you won’t feel so sick. Then these thoughts will stop”. But they didn’t. It was only through metacognitive therapy, which deals with your thoughts about your thoughts, that I recovered.

Intrusive thoughts create a hell I struggle to articulate, despite having lived through it. So, I cannot imagine what the people featured in the BBC article are or have been going through with the additional shame and burden of having been vilified and punished for their mental illness.

If you read the article (which you can also find here), what did you think about the stories featured? Have you ever struggled with intrusive thoughts?

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