The OCD We See on TV

Zachary Bishop
Dec 7, 2013 · 5 min read

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses. A day rarely occurs where I don’t hear someone say something along the lines of “I’m so OCD about what books I read” or “My OCD always makes me proofread my papers twice.”

Everyone seems to equate their meticulous or detail-oriented tendencies with OCD, but they don’t realize that’s not how the illness actually affects people and saying things like that makes it seem like a trivial condition.

In reality, experiencing OCD is awful. Your mind becomes plagued with obsessive thoughts that tell you you’re unsafe unless you follow these very strict rules. And when you break them, you become stressed and partake in odd rituals, called compulsions, to try to feel safe again.

So you wash your hands when they become “contaminated” or recount your fingers when you forget to do it before leaving a room. You panic, you worry, you tense up, and feel straight-out miserable.

Writers for primetime TV shows have also belittled OCD by failing to accurately portray how the disease affects people when they write characters that struggle from it.

Glee’s Emma Pillsbury, portrayed by Jayma Mays, is a perfect example of a poor depiction because whenever the camera shows her performing a “compulsive” ritual, she’s happily shining a grape or cutely organizing her pamphlets, all the while not breaking a sweat or losing her cool. Hell, if I looked that good when my OCD was acting up, I would never be self-conscious about having it.

Emma polishing her grape to ward off germs. That’s a compulsion if I’ve ever seen one… not really.

Plus, the steps the writers have Emma takes to treat it are unrealistic. Sure she starts taking pills in Season 2 and mentions that she’s still taking them in Season 3, but other than that, she does nothing else on screen to treat her condition. The only treatment the writers have her undertake that seems to work is being with Will Schuster (played by Matthew Morrison), which just gives off the false impression that dating someone helps people get over mental illness.

All in all, the writers of Glee never developed Emma’s struggle with OCD enough to accurately portray it, which would be fine if it was any other quality or story element. If you’re just going to portray mental illness on a shallow level, you shouldn’t do it at all because then all you’re doing is further encouraging the stigma surrounding it.

But there is still hope because during this season of Grey’s Anatomy, the tenacious and strong surgeon Miranda Bailey, who is portrayed by Chandra Wilson, has been struggling with OCD.

In the episode “Two Against One” (10x8), we learned of Bailey’s OCD when she conducted several unnecessary procedures on a patient to calm her anxiety in the OR and during “Somebody that I Used to Know” (10x10), Bailey is asked to step back from surgery because word spread around about how extreme her OCD had gotten.

Chief-of-Surgery Owen Hunt (played by Keven McKidd) testing if Bailey can perform surgery without all of her tools perfectly in order before asking her to stand back.

Bailey finally started treatment to get back into surgery in last night’s episode “Man on the Moon” (10x11), but she refuses to start taking meds for her condition when the hospital’s psychiatrist recommends it because she does not want to admit she’s struggling.

So later in the skills lab, Bailey asks what she needs the psychiatrist what she needs to do to get back into surgery other than take the meds and the physician says five sutures. Bailey laughs and confidently goes to start, but then the psychiatrist jumbles up all of her tools and says she can’t try to put them back in order while making them.

For the rest of the episode Bailey struggles to complete this task and it really frustrates her. She cannot perform a task she’s completed hundreds of time without straightening her tools, thus showing how intense her OCD has gotten. The viewer can see the sweat covering her chest and forehead and hear her heavy breathing while she tries to complete this task.

Bailey’s struggle with OCD is most accurate portrayal of the illness I’ve seen on television. While we cannot see what was going on inside her head as she struggles, the writers and directors still make us realize how her illness is affecting her with those little details.

They took the time to research OCD and thought about how to communicate the struggles people with it face. By doing such simple story writing tasks, they were able to accurately portray the disease, thus encouraging their primetime audience to reexamine their perceptions of OCD.

They also encourage those who struggle with OCD to keep fighting by the words they have their characters say. At the end of the last episode, former Chief-of-Surgery Richard Webber (portrayed by James Pickens) gives Bailey a powerful pep talk that while encouraging her to take the medicine and start fighting her OCD, empowers anyone watching the show who has a mental illness to stay strong.

Webber has been Bailey’s role model and mentor throughout the entire series.

“I’m an alcoholic,” he says, “I always want a drink because I have a disease and it can’t be cured, but it can be managed. But I can’t do it by myself. I need help. Accept that you have a disease Bailey. Accept hell. We’re all here for you when you’re ready to get started.”

Let’s hope that more primetime TV shows follow in Greys’ footsteps and finally start portraying OCD properly.

Watch the scene on YouTube.

    Zachary Bishop

    Written by

    Pioneering my way through uncharted scholarly territory. I’m an American historian, museum curator in training, and writer.

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