Why Talking About Mental Health Matters

Portrait from behind of woman with head down as she is scratching at her head and neck
Portrait from behind of woman with head down as she is scratching at her head and neck

"It probably makes you better at your job," a CEO of an innovative health-care company recently told me.

She wasn't talking about my Midwest work ethic (I'm from Missouri). Or my ambition (I've wanted to head up a magazine since starting as a copy editor at Redbook in '98). She was referring to my OCD. And she's far from the only person who has said something similar upon finding out that I have diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The implication was that because I have OCD, I must be extremely detailed, and being that detailed has helped me succeed as editor-in-chief of Women's Health magazine. I get that she meant this as a compliment, and it doesn't make me mad or hurt to hear such things. But it does baffle me. Because this is what my illness really looks like:

It makes me wash my hands 20 times daily.

It makes me re-play conversations in my head for days, even weeks.

It makes me ask and re-ask (and re-ask) my husband the same illogical question to reassure myself of the answer.

It makes me fear that if I don't repeat a mantra in my head over and over, some terrible thing will occur.

It makes me worry that any red mark on the wall, a piece of paper, a pizza box, really anything, is blood -- contaminated blood -- even when it's clearly anything but blood.

Now ask yourself this question: Why would the hallmarks of this illness make me better at my job? A 2009 Financial Times story put it so well:

The term 'OCD' has recently displaced 'anal' in contemporary slang as a way of describing people who are more than usually meticulous... If this reflected a greater understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder, it might be no bad thing. In fact, it has simply increased the degree of misunderstanding by confusing two different conditions with almost the same name. 'Anal' people do not usually have OCD at all; they simply have an obsessive compulsive personality type, meaning they're a bit fussy. People with OCD, in contrast, are suffering from a serious anxiety disorder that greatly impinges on their lives. While being 'anal' can be an asset in some circumstances, as in a job that requires attention to detail, there are no advantages in having OCD at any level.

This is why, in the May issue of Women's Health and during National Women's Health Week, we're working to bust the stigma surrounding mental illness and asking people to think before casually throwing around words like "crazy" or "schizo" or "insane." Now let's be clear: As a writer and an editor and, more so, as an American, I have no desire to police language or tell people what they can and can't say. But I do think we all have a responsibility to think about the meaning of our words before using them.

Even I need this reminder: I recently attended a charity event raising money for OCD research. During a dinner break, speaking with a young man who had just addressed the group about his mental-health issues, I began citing stats from the Women's Health May story, inadvertently blurting out, "Can you believe how crazy this stat is?" Followed by, worse, "How insane is that?" I caught myself and apologized to the man, explaining that these words have become such a part of our vernacular that it's been hard to break the habit, even when it's top of mind. His response? Complete understanding, and a solution -- he has consciously decided to replace those words with another: bananas.

We both laughed. It's a funny word, one I haven't thought much about since Gwen Stefani dropped it in 2005. It has a way of diffusing something that's deep and heavy, and I've decided to adopt it myself.

And next time someone tells me I'm bananas-good at my job, I hope they'll be complimenting my actual work.

To join Women's Health in ending the stigma surrounding mental illness, add the #WhoNotWhat overlay to your profile picture on Twitter and Facebook.