Here’s How To Support A Friend With OCD

If you have a friend who is living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you’ll naturally want to offer your support. The first step in helping someone cope with any type of mental illness is to educate yourself. It’s become common to throw around the term “OCD” to refer to quirks or people who are very tidy. But that’s not what OCD is and misusing the term downplays the seriousness of the illness. 

According to Beyond OCD, the hallmark symptoms of OCD are obsessive thoughts and rituals that take up enough time to interfere with a person’s ability to function throughout the day or enjoy life.

The obsessive thoughts can come in different forms, depending on the person. Some people experience OCD as fear of germs, while others are fearful of illness or injury to themselves or others. They may even fear that they’ll harm someone, despite no history of violence. Some people with OCD have obsessive thoughts about numbers and form rituals based on “good” or “bad numbers,” per Beyond OCD.

In other words, a friend with OCD may have no problem sharing a drink with you, because their symptoms don’t manifest in the form of fear of germs. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, they may be dealing with scary thoughts or fears of harm coming to themselves or others. The best way to find out is to ask how your friend experiences OCD, so you have a clearer understanding of how it’s impacting their life.

Be empathetic and nonjudgmental, but don't enable their compulsions

According to Mind, a mental health charity based in England and Wales, it’s crucial that you don’t act shocked or judgmental when a friend opens up to you about their thoughts. Instead, be empathetic and make clear that you’re there to listen when your friend wants or needs to talk.

Although it may be difficult in the moment, Mind says that it’s important to not enable a friend’s compulsions by helping carry them out. Doing so won’t help your friend in the long-term, because you’ll be sending the message that a compulsive behavior is the only way to assuage their anxiety. Instead, encourage them to continue working with a therapist and/or a psychiatrist so they can find healthier coping mechanisms.

Even if you have the best of intentions, don’t compare your own thoughts to your friend’s. As explained by The Mighty, saying you understand your friend because you get stressed out a lot invalidates what it’s like to actually live with OCD. It’s one thing to be prone to stress or always want to have your place be tidy; it’s entirely different to have an illness like OCD.

Both Mind and The Mighty note the importance of taking care of yourself, too. In order to support your friend, you need to be emotionally healthy.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

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