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Navigating Academics at Elon with OCD

By: Kerry Barba

When people think about individuals with disabilities, they often picture someone with a visible difference. However, some disabilities are not obvious at first glance.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is one such hidden disability.

Every Elon student likely knows someone with OCD. This disorder affects about 1% of the US adult population and can seriously influence the mental processes and behavior of those affected. Many people are only aware of stereotypical OCD behaviors, such as repeatedly locking doors and washing hands, but symptoms can manifest in a number of different ways.

“A lot of people think compulsions are just like cleaning stuff, but compulsions can be so much more,” says Elon sophomore Trinity Dixon, who was diagnosed with OCD during high school.

Most symptoms can be difficult to live with. Being diagnosed and reaching out for help may be shameful or embarrassing for students, and the diverse symptoms can negatively impact academic performance as well as other aspects of college life.

But are all symptoms of OCD inherently detrimental? One study published in 2017 by researchers at Utah State University shows that this might not be the case. In this study, students reported the extent to which they perform behaviors associated with OCD. Students answered questions about three categories of symptoms: contamination (e.g. “I avoid using the public telephone because of possible contamination”), repeating doubts (“I usually have serious doubts about the simple, everyday things I do”), and checking/details (“I spend a lot of time checking things over and over again”).

Researchers examined how these behaviors related to students’ self-perceptions of academic performance. By studying these variables, the researchers tested whether more severe OCD symptoms in each of the three categories would correlate with students having worse perceptions of their own academic skills.

Instead, researchers found that the “checking/details” symptom group actually had a positive effect on academic self-concept. However, this was only true when the symptom level was low to moderate. The other two symptom groups negatively influenced self-evaluations of academics).

Why? This “checking” symptom group describes ritualistic behaviors that result in checking answers and paying attention to detail more than individuals without OCD- in other words, seemingly “perfectionist” behaviors. Logically it makes sense that such thoroughness, in moderation, could be beneficial to academic performance.

Elon sophomore Alyssa Meritt described her own experience with this symptom as, “The orderliness…it’s probably why I’m a good student- always writing everything down, always making sure everything’s accounted for.”

As someone with OCD myself, my personal experience is consistent with the study conclusion. The fact that attention to detail has a positive social connotation makes it significant. Being known as organized or reliable can be a relief to students who are self-conscious about the more stigmatized symptoms that they may experience.

In general, people have a negative connotation around disability, and unfortunately, this doesn’t end on Elon’s campus. Meritt describes Elon’s attitude towards OCD as “There’s not so much of a stigma, so much as… it is just not acknowledged.”

Most students are unaware of what it’s like to live with OCD. Even the three symptom groups in the described study are not completely comprehensive. Other symptoms include intrusive thoughts, severe anxiety around disorder or changing of plans, and the strong need to follow irrational, often complex compulsions.

Meritt says, “It tortures you inside your head… most people don’t understand that it’s not a ‘fun’ disease. It’s not just [that] you like things neat. It’s like anxiety that overtakes you.”

Dixon describes a similar experience, branding the disorder “a real psychological cycle that repeats itself through the compulsions.”

I am not trying to suggest that disabilities have pros and cons, or that a symptom alone could make academics easier. However, it’s important to think about the stereotypes that we hold about disabilities and how our attitudes shape our social climate. This study may help to show people that those with OCD may experience things differently, but that does not make them inherently better or worse at academics.

Here at Elon, we have resources such as Disabilities Resources that can be a great asset to those with OCD or other disorders. They can provide accommodations when warranted, such as extended testing time and flexible attendance. But as helpful as this program is academically, there is still a social stigma around mental disorders and seeking help that may prevent some students from registering.

To some, using accommodations is seen as a personal failure or something that should be hidden. Dixon, who is currently in the process of registering with Disabilities Resources, said that it took her some time to realize that it’s not a personal failure. Instead, “you’re trying to give yourself the tools you need so you can be more successful…I’m trying to destigmatize it for my own sake and my own healing.” I encourage everyone to take advantage of these tools.

But in order to create an environment where people don’t view it as a failure in the first place, we need to be able to support each other. And in order to decrease the stigma, it is essential that we educate ourselves and approach topics such as disability without judgment. When a disorder is not approached seriously, people may subsequently feel invalidated. We need to realize how diverse diagnoses can be, and stop classifying people according to stereotypes.

“I think OCD is definitely an authentic part of me, and I embrace it for what it is,” concludes Meritt. Personally, I believe that Elon would be a better place if we could all take her advice and embrace each other for who we are.

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