A while ago I came across this hand sanitizer at a rest stop along the highway.

That’s right, it’s OCD Hand Sanitizer. The back reads: “Open cap. Sanitize. Close cap. Open cap. Sanitize. Close cap. Make sure cap is firmly closed. Recheck cap. Are you sure it’s closed?”

This is just one of the infuriating ways in which mental illness is used as a marketing gimmick or a cheap joke. While I completely understand that humour can be a valuable coping mechanism for some people (myself included), I think this crosses a line. Context is everything! I might joke about my own condition with my close friends, but I avoid making generalizations that would hurt other people with lived experience of mental illness. I’m displeased that a company would use the “OCD = clean” stereotype to market their product to a wide audience. It’s a tired joke at best, but what I’m really concerned about is the harmful potential of this kind of stereotype. I can’t count the number of lists I’ve seen capturing supposed storage and organization solutions “for the OCD soul.” Or the times I’ve heard people say “yeah, I’m so OCD” while wiping down a lunch table or reorganizing their desk. Obsessive compulsive disorder is actually a pretty complex and debilitating illness that is about so much more than just being clean or tidy.

Other mental illnesses get this treatment too. People joke that the weather is bipolar when it’s 20 degrees one day and 10 degrees the next. Sometimes thin people are described as anorexic because of their size. These might seem like harmless words or mere exaggerations, but they have a big impact. How would a bipolar or anorexic person feel if they heard others joking around like this? It could be isolating, especially if that person doesn’t feel comfortable talking about their illness. And the other problem is that people will develop these stereotypical ideas of what mental illnesses look like, when the truth is far more complicated. Someone who thinks that OCD is just about washing hands more often will have a hard time being empathetic and caring towards people with the actual disorder.

I don’t think it’s that hard to remove this kind of language from our everyday lives. “OCD” is not a quirky, fun adjective to grab people’s attention. Mental illness shouldn’t be used as a gimmick for shock value or for jokes. I would love to see a little more understanding and tact when it comes to things like this. By removing these stereotypes and encouraging people to think before they speak, I think we can contribute to a better, global understanding of how mental illnesses impact a person’s life and what we can do to help.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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