The other day I was watching Friends, a programme that I’ve been watching since I was about seven years old, and something occurred to me. The character Monica’s fixation with cleanliness and order is referred to throughout the ten seasons. It’s made a joke of. She’s called a ‘clean freak’. Does she suffer with OCD?
When I think about it, this isn’t very strange. Sheldon Cooper from the brilliant comedy show Big Bang Theory (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it) has many compulsive behaviours. While it’s never identified as OCD, a fairly recent episode actually created quite an interesting way of explaining the anxious feelings of OCD and other anxiety disorders to people who don’t experience them. When Leonard has forgotten to return Sheldon’s DVD to a rental shop, he must wear an itchy red jumper until the situation is resolved. I know that when I’m going through a phase where I feel very anxious about everything, it could definitely be likened to the niggling discomfort of an itchy jumper. You can never stop thinking about it and it will make you uncomfortable until it’s sorted out.
There are plenty of other examples. Miss Pilsbury in Glee admits and has treatment for OCD, Sherlock Holmes is quite open about being a higher functioning sociopath and I believe there’s currently a programme called My Mad Fat Diary on E4 about a girl with bipolar disorder, although I’ve never actually watched it.
So how do these programmes portray mental illness? For the most part, they’re made into an entertaining part of the shows. Occasionally, they’re talked about openly. Rarely does the person concerned actually receive treatment. On the other hand, it’s not always seen as a negative. Sherlock just wouldn’t be Sherlock without that near complete lack of social awareness that actually seems to help him focus more on being a genius. Isn’t being creatively brilliant often linked with mental illness? I’ve read that there studies looking into an actual genetic link but if we look at examples, particularly of musicians, writers and artists, I think we can really see a link between the two. Vincent Van Gough, one of the greatest artists in human history, famously suffered with severe bouts of depression and eventually committed suicide but captured the intense beauty in nature so amazingly well in his work. Ernest Hemingway and Silvia Plath both suffered with depression and both committed suicide too but are often celebrated as two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. There’s the so called ’27 club’ of musicians such as Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who all died either of drug overdose or suicide at the age of 27 all suffered with depression. As a side note, studies into this have shown no increased risk of death in musicians at that particular age, although the parallel between creativity and depression does seem to exist. While I’d never describe myself as a great or even good writer, I certainly find writing a great way of dealing with some of my own issues.
Now it is becoming more socially acceptable to speak out about depression and other mental illness and I think this is, in part, thanks to people like Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson who have spoken openly about their own battles with mental illness. We now accept that mentally ill people can be verbose, charming, intellectual and hilariously comical, just as they could have any other characteristic that one could attribute to a human being. You could speak to someone every day and never know what demons they grapple with.
Mental illness is all around us. As, according to the Mental Health Foundation, around 1 in 4 of us suffer from a mental illness at some point in our lives, I believe it’s something we all need to become comfortable speaking about and learning more about.