Toby Mott discusses Channel 4’s ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ and the perception of OCD as a cute quirk.
“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” isn’t any easier to write than it is to say. As so often seems to be the case with the clinical titles assigned to mental illness, just the terms themselves are enough to evoke an uncomfortable and involuntary wince. Despite the tireless efforts of charities such as Mind – the lifeblood of which is public donation – the subject of mental health remains very much a social battleground.
You’d think, then, that such a widespread and affecting stigma would be taken into account by the team behind Channel 4’s recent documentary series, Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners. Following individuals diagnosed with OCD who have a particular penchant for cleanliness, the show documents their pairing with another individual who lives in squalor and waits to bask in their reaction. From a conservatory that’s been converted into a goat barn to a hoarder whose rooms are jammed with junk, viewers are invited to laugh and then scorn the extremes that are being presented to them.
Take mother of two, Jade, for example. Diagnosed with the disorder, she follows a strict cleaning regime every day (adding up to 40 hours a week) and is so afraid of bacteria that she has to wear plastic sandwich bags over her hands while doing so. Now picture the scene as she walks through a house that’s been taken over by goats. After witnessing droppings in the kitchen and facing the stench of urine in the living room, Jade is understandably distressed. Yet the camera keeps rolling in the name of entertainment.
I’m under no illusions that she has agreed to participate in the program and is presumably aware as to what she’s let herself in for. On that basis, you might say that she doesn’t deserve sympathy for what she’s experiencing. She’s using her disorder as a springboard to local celebrity fame. True or not, it’s difficult to look past the notion that she is being exploited for what makes her different, and that the serious condition that enforces this difference is being trivialized to the point at which it could – quite worryingly – define how some portions of the audience perceive it.
OCD is already radically misunderstood. Within a few weeks of starting University I’d already been asked (half-jokingly) whether I had OCD because of the tidy state of my room, and I laughed it off – but looking back it highlights how deeply embedded the misunderstanding is. I have no issues admitting that I’m an organized guy and that this lends itself to maintaining a clean room, but if folders were sprawled over my desk the morning after a flat party I wouldn’t consider it to be the end of the world.
It’s this area where Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners can earn a miniscule amount of praise. Even if it does intend to entertain, it doesn’t shy away from highlighting the extremes of the disorder and how it controls some people’s lives, shattering the perception that it’s something that you can “just get over”. When Jade cries and claims that she’d really like to change because she can hardly leave the house, there’s no impression that it’s set up or put on for the camera – she genuinely looks like an upset and traumatized woman who is desperate for help.
In saying that, the show obscures understanding in the respect that it presents very stereotypical scenarios; OCD isn’t just about cleaning, and can impact individuals in a variety of different ways. To say that Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners covers the “tip of the iceberg” would be an understatement, and a quick Google search brings up hundreds of tragic stories from individuals whose OCD is crippling them. Imagine spending eight hours in the bathroom because you were feeling anxious, or being diagnosed with depression as a result of consistent hand washing. Imagine what life would be like.
Engage with individual experiences and you’ll find them genuinely devastating, but there seems to be at least a flicker of light at the end of the OCD-darkened tunnel. If the show is to be believed, it claims that the experience that the program provided resulted in Jade being able to clean with her bare hands and ditch the sandwich bags, which is obviously a monumental step in taking control of her life. However, the show says nothing more and this raises questions about the presence of ongoing support; now Channel 4 has wrung her dry of entertainment value, has she been left by the wayside?
I really hope that isn’t the case, because only with support (from friends and professionals alike) can individuals overcome their difficulties and it’s this support that seems to be lacking in society’s nonchalant attitude to mental illness. The Twitter hash tag #OCDproblems would almost be sickening if you didn’t think that those behind them were completely naïve, and although depression doesn’t share a similar hash tag, it is just as badly treated in today’s – apparently modern – world.
Ultimately, what stems from all of this is the requirement for awareness and education. Although Channel 4 would inevitably claim that their show does raise awareness, it does so in a manner that is stereotypical, biased, and entertaining – an adjective that I have a difficult time associating with mental illness. Regardless of Channel 4’s definition of responsible programming, overturning these outdated societal attitudes starts with the individual voice. If somebody seems to misunderstand the gravity of any mental illness, delicately raise it with them and they’ll probably be appreciative of the insight and deliberate their perceptions. If you stay quiet, then mental illness and those that suffer from it will always be considered trivial; I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that a life is worth more than that.