By Rose Bretécher for the Guardian
Yesterday Good Morning Britain marked OCD Awareness Week with a segment about the disorder. Here are some common OCD symptoms that didn’t get a mention:
• Fears you might want to murder your child
• Intrusive thoughts about sexual violence
• Fears you might act out aggressive urges when in public
• Doubts you might have run someone over without realising
• Fear that your surroundings are unsafe
• Doubts about your sexuality
• Fears that your blood may be contaminated
• Intrusive thoughts about poisoning people
• Fears that you may be terminally ill
• Doubts about whether or not you love your partner
• Fears that you may have offended God
• Intrusive thoughts about setting people on fire
In sidestepping these, the five-minute TV segment portrayed OCD as a hackneyed stereotype: a trifling, even enjoyable, fascination with organisation and order. The response from OCD campaigners was swift and critical. National charities OCD Action and OCD UK issued statements expressing serious concerns about the way the programme handled the disorder. You can read them here and here.
For me, the segment was so vanilla it was cloying. Images of apparent OCD-sufferer David Beckham played over plaintive piano music before giving way to a bafflingly trivial interview in which self-diagnosed Michelle Mone jollily said: “I love having OCD, it makes me really organised.” I personally have never loved having OCD. When I first started experiencing graphic violently sexual intrusive thoughts as a teenager, I didn’t know I had the disorder, largely because of the lack of public awareness. Later it nearly killed me. Watching national TV yesterday I was disappointed by what I saw: a 1990s OCD cliche regurgitated.
Not that all mental health content has to be 100% accurate or exhaustive. Discussion between non-experts is important, and generally I think there’s too much public condemnation of those who use the wrong words. At least they’re having a go. There’s a big difference between ignorance and intent, and all too often, especially on Twitter, the former is chastised as though it were the latter.
From what I can see, the GMB segment was intentionally reductive. Last week, a member of the production team appealed to Ashley Fulwood of OCD UK for advice about possible case studies for the segment. Ashley suggested some interviewees who’d show the breadth and severity of OCD, to which GMB replied that they were specifically looking for someone with milder symptoms, whose morning routine is slowed by “the checking side of OCD”, but who isn’t debilitated. At that point Ashley refused to cooperate with their research, suspecting the film would only fuel misconceptions. His hunch was right. Having sought out the advice of an authority, GMB ignored recommendations and actively sought to portray an “OCD lite” version of the illness, which, given that one of the main diagnostic criteria for OCD is serious impairment of day-to-day functioning, arguably isn’t OCD at all.
I was one of Ashley’s suggested interviewees (hence how jilted and bitter I am – for a brief, hopeful moment I thought that pre-8am blowdry was mine – that I was robbed). GMB said my story was too explicit, and on the one hand I get that. My OCD manifested as graphic intrusive sexual thoughts, which, granted, don’t immediately scream: “Good Morning Britain”. On the other hand, I don’t agree. Can we not say the word “sex” in a mental health context without giggling like titmice? The content of OCD is largely “adult” in nature – sexual or violent or otherwise plain frightening, and of course, that’s challenging to tackle in morning TV. But the answer to that challenge is not to cherry pick the most palatable aspects of a mental illness to suit an entertainment agenda.
When I watched the segment, I thought particularly of new mothers and fathers. In one of its most vicious guises, OCD plagues parents with intrusive thoughts of harming their children. One study found that 69% of mothers and 58% of fathers experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts during their child’s first year. Yesterday morning, how many people were awake feeding restless babies when that GMB segment began playing in the background? How many were thinking that they were alone in their “unspeakable” thoughts? Even a passing reference, a single sentence, could’ve spoken to them. What a wasted opportunity to educate, to comfort, to give hope.
OCD Awareness Week not only challenges stigma but celebrates progress, and I do believe that mental health media coverage is improving. Recently I’ve met many brilliant editors, journalists and producers who are passionate about portraying the complexity and breadth of mental illness, who don’t shy away from darkness, and who realise the incredible power they have to smash the stigma. With a little more nuance and a little more care, Good Morning Britain could have changed people’s lives yesterday.