“Super OCD”: The Problem With Mental Health Tropes

Mental illness is easy to misuse as a narrative crutch.

Posted May 12, 2020

 Porapak Apichodilok/Pexels
Source: Porapak Apichodilok/Pexels

If you're looking for a useful, informative portrayal of mental illness, just ignore the vast majority of pop culture, mass media, and high art and literature produced on the subject. Mental illness is difficult to portray accurately in fiction—but that doesn't prevent even the most woefully unqualified writers and artists from trying. 

A survey of mass media reveals countless harmful misrepresentations of mental disability. Among them—autistic people are cold and robotic but super-intelligent; having Attention-Deficit Disorder suggests you're a moron with zero attention span, but taking ADD medication turns you into a brain-dead zombie; schizophrenics are serial killers with multiple personalities. Mental illness is easy to misuse in fiction as narrative shorthand to give a character motivation or extra pathos. Writers may not even realize that they're perpetuating a cruel or harmful stereotype—some of these stereotypes reflect unquestioned cultural assumptions, while others are played for laughs. And sometimes they lead to real-life tragedy—as far back as 1779 when Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of a Young Writer reportedly inspired a wave of copycat suicides

In media, romanticizing depression and suicide is dangerous and sadly common. In fiction, depressive thinking is sometimes attributed to a character's honesty and unusual insight, as the result of questioning society's assumptions and realizing the underlying tragedy of human existence. The depressive is often painted as a brooding, Byronic hero—sometimes suicide is even glamorized as an ideological or enlightened act of defiance. This is a trope that goes back centuries, poisoning many great works of art and literature: Huxley's Brave New World, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the original novel of The Phantom of the Opera, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The sad truth is that depressed thoughts are not profound or insightful; they are predictable, tedious, and self-perpetuating. They do not reveal difficult truths or provide enlightenment, but instead indiscriminately treat everything and everyone with the same cruelty and cynicism. And self-harm is never romantic or noble; it cannot lead to self-actualization, because it is, by definition, the ultimate act of absolute self-negation.  

Media stereotypes about OCD are less dangerous, but they can be equally toxic. Media loves using OCD for mean-spirited comedy, depicting OCD sufferers as annoying pedants who take a perverse delight in their “insane,” ritualized behavior. I find this more baffling than offensive. There is a rule in writing comedy that you never punch down, never make someone who is less fortunate or powerless the butt of your joke—mocking the mentally ill for their mental illness violates that edict, in addition to flouting basic human decency. Who sees another person visibly suffering from an obvious mental illness and concludes they still aren’t miserable enough? 

Other OCD tropes are subtler but equally pernicious. Some time ago, in ”Why Monk Stunk,” I wrote about the cult TV series Monk, starring Tony Shaloub as the titular “obsessive-compulsive detective.” Monk is the most prominent example of the “OCD superpower” trope—the premise that OCD is not wholly negative, that it grants magical deductive and problem-solving skills while simultaneous driving you insane.  

In the NAMI Blog, Ethan Smith discredits this trope in his article “The Messy Truth About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder":  

“I struggled throughout my childhood, through multiple high schools, and left college after just one semester—consumed by my obsessive thoughts. I barely made it through my 20s. In my early 30s, I hit rock bottom. I was bedridden in my parents' guest bedroom, paralyzed by OCD... Movies and TV present OCD as quirky or fun. Characters often use their symptoms to their advantage, almost like a skill or superpower. Hollywood has created the belief that OCD is just double-checking, hand washing, or a strong dislike of germs. Hollywood and the media rarely address the reality of this serious condition—it simply seems funny to watch, and not too difficult to live with. So, many individuals with OCD continue to struggle in silence, afraid to seek help.”  (Smith)

Smith’s experiences resonate with me. If an OCD sufferer possesses useful or practical skills, those skills are, by definition, not any part of their disorder. OCD is not “a blessing and a curse”—and any superficially similar “blessings” are separate from and actually impeded by obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

In the case of Marvel’s Tony Stark, the invincible Iron Man is portrayed in the comics as a recovering alcoholic. No one suggests that Iron Man's brilliant engineering and entrepreneurship are the product of his alcoholism. Tony Stark has never asked Thor to provide him with a heady Viking mead before a showdown with Thanos because Tony needs the heightened reflexes and superior decision-making skills that only alcohol can provide. And the late writer Stan Lee never cameoed as a friendly bartender in the movies, lining up Jaegerbombs for Tony so he can crash his armor on the lawn and text Black Widow at 3 a.m. 

This has never happened with Iron Man—such a comic doesn’t exist, because no one in their right mind (excepting the already severely inebriated) would suggest that substance addiction is a superpower. Well, neither is depression. And neither is OCD.

Stories, even fictional ones, inform our cultural understanding of mental illness. Allowing misinformation to spread unchecked can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary suffering. Pointing out inaccurate mental health tropes might give someone the impetus they need to seek a diagnosis or a more effective form of treatment. Once you learn to recognize and avoid clichés, it gets easier to write your own story.

You may also be interested in my column, "Why Monk Stunk"

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2020.

Author of Triggered:  A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”

Read my Psychology Today blog:  Triggered


Ethan S. Smith.  “The Messy Truth About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” NAMI Blog, Oct. 7 2019,  www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2019/The-Messy-Truth-About-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder