Have Hollywood Made Movies About OCD?
Human beings are more nuanced than you may think, especially when it comes to thoughts and behaviors. And, although obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is considered a real mental health condition (it is listed in the DSM-5), people, who do not struggle with this condition may not know or understand just what it is. When people do not understand something, their first step towards enlightenment often involves turning to movies for clarification.
Hollywood is no stranger to making movies about or having actors pretend to have mental health conditions. OCD is a hot button in the movie genre. The problem is Hollywood usually gets it wrong. Movie studios want movies that sell. They want big audiences, so they often take “artistic liberties” when creating movies and characters.
These “artistic liberties” can and often do venture into the mental health arena. Movies are made and people take the characters or the premise of the movie and run with it. This is their form of “research.” What they do not know is that movies are fictional. Even biographies and documentaries are subjective and prone to “artistic liberties.” While these “liberties” are small in biographies and documentaries, it still occurs. The result? A misinformed society.
Movies are imperfect depictions of reality. The main goal of film writers and movie directors is to make movies that touch people – even if this transcends into fantasy and fiction. However, when done correctly, movies can be challenging, enriching, beneficial, and thought-provoking – but that is when they are done – right.
With the right intentions and thorough research, movies can be extremely educational. More specifically, movies (when done correctly) can provide a wealth of important information in a relatable way. They can also raise awareness, foster sensitivity, dialogue, complexities, and normalization, while also providing entertainment. This is especially important when it comes to mental health conditions like OCD.
If you are looking for the truth when it comes to movies and their portrayals of OCD, you are in the right spot. This article will tell you the real deal when it comes to OCD in movies.
How Does the DSM-5 Define OCD?
According to the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD):
Presence of Obsessions, Compulsions, or Both
Obsessions and compulsions that are not only time-consuming (possibly taking up to an hour or more each day), but also cause significant pain and/or damage when it comes to social, work, school, and/or personal engagements.
Obsessions are defined by:
- Frequent, constant, intrusive, and unwelcome thoughts, urges, and/or images that cause severe stress and anxiety.
- Failed attempts to ignore, suppress, or neutralize the involuntary and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images by performing a specific action (i.e., compulsion).
Compulsions are defined by:
- Engaging in repetitive behaviors, such as hand-washing, cleaning, checking, etc., or mental acts, such as praying, counting, silently repeating mantras – words or phrases in response to obsessive thoughts. The goal of a compulsion is to ease distress, anxiety, and/or stress.
- Compulsive behaviors or mental acts aimed at avoiding or easing anxiety, stress, or distress, or averting a dreaded or feared event or situation. Understand, however, that these excessive behaviors and “acts” are not directly linked to what they are trying to reduce, stop, prevent, or neutralize.
Note: Really young children (infants, toddlers, and children under the age of 5) may be unable to clearly articulate the purpose of their compulsive behaviors or mental acts.
How are OCD Characters Portrayed in Movies?
Having OCD can feel extremely lonely and oppressive, especially when the world around you downplays it.
How Hollywood portrays mental health conditions, like OCD, most of the time, is ridiculous. OCD is not a punchline of joke. It is also not a tool to be used to get large audiences or lots of money.
Now, I am pretty sure that most film writers or directors do not set out to minimize, stereotype, or make fun of people with mental health conditions, like OCD, however, that is usually the end result. In other words, at the end of the day, most movies push negative and untrue stereotypes into movie-goers’ minds, primarily because they simply do not know what OCD involves and more importantly, what it looks like in everyday life.
As a result, these individuals accept these portrayals as “facts” when that could not be further from the truth (for most people with mental illness or OCD). What this does is dismiss, ignore, and/or invalidate what people, who really have mental health conditions or OCD, go through daily.
Pre-covid people would turn out in droves to see a new movie, but tuning into a movie that features one or more characters with OCD does not help people, who really suffer from the condition – especially if the portrayals are fictitious or inaccurate. People tend to view actors and characters, as role models and idols, which also does not help the plight of people, who are struggling with mental illness.
Not only do some movies poke fun at people with OCD, but they also have a habit of using the term, “OCD” incorrectly. Characters in these movies tend to equate orderliness and cleanliness with “OCD” when that may not be the right association. Characters with OCD are also depicted as being “quirky,” “odd,” and/or “fun,” when that is also not always the case. And, they tend to use phrases like, “I’m so OCD!” or “It is just my OCD working!” The truth os OCD is so much more real and intricate than exhibited in most movies
For instance, in the movie, “As Good as It Gets,” Melvin, the main character, has OCD. Throughout the movie, Melvin grapples with the ups and downs of having OCD. It also details how OCD has impacted his life. He tries multiple times to combat or manage his condition, but recovery remains elusive. Melvin has a hard time coping with his OCD symptoms (i.e., rituals like locking and unlocking his doors exactly 5x and turning the lights on and off exactly 5x).
Melvin helps negate the myth that people, who have OCD, are unable to function normally (i.e., carry out daily tasks). Melvin was able to live a normal life because no one around him knew he had OCD. However, the movie showed how hurtful and detrimental it is for people with OCD to be shunned or alienated by society. The truth is with the right OCD treatment, most people with OCD live happy, productive, and successful lives, mainly because most people are unaware that they struggle with the condition. OCD is virtually a “silent illness.”
This movie accurately portrays how it is to live with OCD, however, that is not always the case. In fact, most movies inaccurately portray OCD to get laughs, money, a plotline, high ratings, tears, anger, etc. Although OCD can make completing certain tasks more challenging, most people with the condition are productive members of society. They are not strange or neurotic. Rather, they are everyday people, who are trying their best to cope with the hand they have been dealt (OCD).
Listed below are inaccurate stereotypes attributed to people with OCD:
- Stereotype: People with OCD are super clean, tidy, and orderly.
Reality: Not all people with OCD needs excessively neat organized.
While some people with OCD are super clean, tidy, and orderly, others are not. But, even if a person has a cleanliness obsession, he or she probably does not want to be that way. These obsessions and compulsions have nothing to do with cleanliness, tidiness, and orderliness. Therefore, this stereotype is inaccurate for most people with OCD.
Rather, it is the compulsion that makes him or her feel as if the only way to receive relief from the intrusive thoughts of dirtiness, germs, viruses, and diseases is to thoroughly clean everything – multiple times. Moreover, researchers suggest that there is a link between OCD and hoarding (fear that some terrible will happen if any items are removed from the residence).
- Stereotype: People with OCD are too pent-up and just need to calm down.
Reality: OCD is not a personal or lifestyle choice, rather it is a serious mental health condition.
Telling someone with OCD that he or she is too pent-up and just needs to calm down is similar to telling a person with bipolar disorder to “stop being manic (excited)” or “stop feeling blue.” Or, telling a person with an autoimmune disorder to “stop getting sick.”
It is never that easy or simple when you are dealing with a health condition, like OCD. OCD, like other mental health conditions, is chronic and widespread. It can invade many parts of your life, including your self-esteem and self-confidence, relationships, work prospects, etc. It can also influence how you interact with others and the world around you.
- Stereotype: A troublesome childhood can lead to OCD.
Reality: There is no single, definite cause of OCD.
While many people with mental health conditions have experienced some degree of trauma, this does not inherently lead to OCD. Moreover, studies indicate that most people with OCD did not experience unhealthy, abusive, dysfunctional, or troublesome childhoods. Researchers suggest that the origin of OCD is unclear, however, poor communication between the posterior of the brain and the interior of the brain may contribute to the development of OCD.
- Stereotype: People with OCD are naturally tense or unstable.
Reality: People with OCD have a health condition that causes them to behave a certain way.
Linking instability to OCD is not only faulty but also unfair. More specifically, labeling someone as “unstable” is patronizing and insulting. It is also a condescending way to downplay a person’s stress and anxiety.
Even, if, by chance, some people with OCD are tense or unstable, it is involuntary. The truth is most people with OCD are aware that the intrusive thoughts, urges, fears, and obsessions are not only irrational but also unlikely to happen. As a result of this knowledge, these individuals tend to feel embarrassed and ashamed of their thoughts and behaviors.
The good news is with the right OCD treatment, people with OCD lead very productive and successful lives. In fact, researchers have found that most people with OCD experience a reduction in symptoms (obsessions and compulsions) with antidepressants, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and exposure-response prevention (ERP) therapy.
What Are Some Movies That Focus on OCD or Have Characters With OCD?
Listed below are movies that focus on OCD or have characters with OCD:
- As Good as It Gets
- Release Date: 1997
- Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt
Synopsis – An obnoxious writer, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) with OCD tries to change his behavior after he is “forced” to care for his neighbor’s dog after his neighbor his attacked during a robbery.
Melvin tries to stop his OCD contamination obsession and ritualistic behaviors (i.e., locking and unlocking the door and turning the light switches off and on) after he realizes that the only person, who understands and tolerates him is a waitress (played by Helen Hunt) at the local diner.
Performing the rituals helps ease Melvin’s stress and anxiety. Eventually, Melvin learns how to better manage his OCD symptoms, so he can live a happier and more productive life. This movie provides the audience with a realistic portrayal of what it is like to struggle with OCD symptoms.
- Sleeping With the Enemy
- Release: 1991
- Cast: Julia Roberts, Patric Bergin, Kevin Anderson, Elizabeth Laurence
Synopsis – Sara/Laura (Julia Roberts) escapes a manipulative, toxic, and abusive husband, Martin (Patric Bergin), who suffers from OCD, and tries to start a new life. Eventually, however, the husband tracks her down intent on killing her. Martin is a poor portrayal of OCD. He appears to be more neurotic and controlling than someone struggling with OCD. He does not show many OCD symptoms, but he does appear to be narcissistic.
- The Aviator
- Release: 2004
- Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett
Synopsis – Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aviation tycoon, who struggles with OCD (contamination OCD) and germaphobia. Although Howard becomes a successful film-maker, eventually these conditions lead to his downfall.
This movie offers a realistic depiction of what it is like to struggle with OCD throughout your life. The film writers did a good job of treating Howard’s OCD issues with seriousness and respect. Unlike other directors who use humor to portray a person with OCD, Martin Scorsese presented OCD realistically and accurately.
- Blue Jasmine
- Release: 2013
- Cast: Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett
Synopsis – Blue Jasmine is about a mentally ill woman, who is trying to navigate a world that has disappointed her. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a glamorous socialite with a bad attitude and multiple mental illnesses, including OCD. Jasmine finds “normal” life insufferable, so she turns to a mixture of sedatives and cocktails to find relief and function. Jasmine’s main obsession is hygiene (personal grooming).
She is most obsessive about her spotless white Chanel jacket. This jacket reduces her anxiety and makes her feel safe and secure. As Jasmine’s world deteriorates – so does her pristine white jacket (becoming dingier each day). This movie accurately portrays what it is like to have OCD. There is no humor in Jasmine’s predicament and there is no happy ending. Blue Jasmine is an excellent character study on what it is like to have a mental illness, like OCD.
Note: Some movie-goers may have a hard time watching the movie because of the nature of the film – the unraveling of a mentally ill individual.
- What About Bob?
- Release: 1991
- Cast: Bill Murray, Julie Hagerty, Richard Dreyfuss
Synopsis – Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) has OCD, which is evident in the opening scene, which shows Bob sitting in his apartment and repeating the following mantra, “I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.” Bob repeats this mantra to himself whenever he feels distressed, nervous, anxious, stressed, or worried – especially when this occurs in a new environment or when he experiences a new situation.
In one scene, he tries to leave his apartment but cannot because of his excessive fears and phobias. Bob paces in the room at the thought of leaving the safety of his home. Eventually, Bob grabs a tissue and uses it to turn the knob and step outside. The tissue is a barrier so he doesn’t become “infected” by the germs on the doorknob.
In another scene Bob is unable to step into an elevator because he is deathly afraid of heights, so he watches as other people get on the elevator. The movie is an inaccurate portrayal of OCD. For one, the treatment Bob receives is unrealistic and does not compare to the best treatment practices for OCD.
Although Bob receives some conventional OCD treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response therapy (ERP), and systematic desensitization therapy, he also receives OCD help in the form of a fictional quick self-help book called, “Baby Steps.” According to this fictional book, Bob does not need therapy or traditional treatment to reduce or eliminate his OCD symptoms.
Rather, he can “cure” his OCD simply by following the “baby steps” listed in the book. This is misinformation because professional help is usually needed to fully combat or manage OCD symptoms. Now, self-help tools are beneficial, however, there are usually used to supplement or aid a prescribed treatment plan (i.e., medication, therapy, etc.).
- Mommie Dearest
- Release: 1981
- Cast: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid
Synopsis – One of the most infamous scenes in movie history involves Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) entering into her daughter’s bathroom and discovering a speck of dust (cleanliness obsession). Joan is already furious because Christina (Diana Scarwid), her daughter violated the wire hanger rule (orderliness obsession), but finding the dust sent Joan into a full-blown OCD episode.
Christina watched in horror as her mother went into a rage because of the hangers and dust. Joan lost control and viciously beat Christina for these transgressions. Although Joan suffers from numerous mental health conditions, the most prevalent ones are bipolar disorder, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, and OCD.
Joan not only had cleanliness and orderliness obsessions, but she was also obsessed with her public image (i.e., pretending to have a joyous family Christmas celebration for a radio interview), obsessed with her living space (chastising a housekeeper for forgetting to clean under a planter) and obsessed with being the “best” at everything, but especially at acting.
This movie portrays Joan as a bully, who tried to control everyone or everything around her – her lovers, children, other actors and actresses, her staff, and even her entourage. This movie presents an unrealistic “over the top” depiction of someone with multiple mental illnesses, including OCD.
Movies like “Mommie Dearest” make society think that people with mental illnesses, like OCD, are paranoid and insane. And, even though some people with OCD are “extra” or “over the top,” most are not. Most people with OCD simply try to conform to societal rules of behavior each day.
It is a struggle but doable in most cases. With Joan’s many obsessions, including daily face scrubbing (cleanliness obsession), this movie portrays a woman who has lost her grip on reality. As the movie closes, what is left is a feeling of having watched a horror movie instead of a movie highlighting the effects of OCD on everyday life.
Is There Anything Else That Can Help with OCD Symptoms?
Yes, there is!
Lifestyle changes (i.e., healthy diet, exercise, etc.), OCD forums, hypnosis, medication, therapy, stress-management techniques, books, CBT, support groups, mindfulness, and online OCD therapy programs, like Impulse Therapy, can help you get a grip on your OCD symptoms (obsessions and compulsions). Impulse Therapy offers a variety of self-help tools like an online assessment, expert OCD content, invaluable OCD resources, and limitless OCD support.