It’s Not a Severe Mental Illness, Is It?

renjith krishnan

renjith krishnan

My friend Angie over at OCD In The Family recently posted a video of  Larry King interviewing Howie Mandel about his OCD in 2012. For those of you who might not be familiar with him, Larry King was a renowned radio and television talk-show host for over 50 years.

I have to say I was really surprised at Mr. King’s lack of knowledge about OCD. I expected better from him. The video is only a couple of minutes long but it’s chock-full of typical misconceptions about the disorder:

Larry says to Howie: “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?”

Larry asks Howie what he’s most compulsive about, obviously not understanding that tormenting obsessions drive the compulsions.

Larry says, “We all have little bits of it.”

While Howie Mandel should be commended for being open about his mental health challenges and fighting the stigma associated with them, I think he missed some teachable moments here (though I imagine it’s incredibly stressful being interviewed about his OCD, so I will cut him some slack).

I watched the video several times, at times trying to perceive what a person with no knowledge of OCD would take away from it. One thing I think might be particularly difficult for viewers, as well as for Larry King, is that Howie Mandel is obviously functioning at a high level. He is a successful comedian, host, and actor, so a natural thought is “How bad could OCD be, if he can do all that?” I’ve written before about how it’s not unusual for people who suffer from severe OCD to get up in the morning and face their responsibilities, even though they might be dealing with non-stop obsessions and hours and hours of compulsions. And while they might seem okay to the outside world, inside they are truly tortured. The bottom line is just because they are functioning, it does not mean they are okay.

While treatment options were not really discussed, Howie did mention a couple of times that he was medicated. I don’t know if he has ever tried exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy or not, but I’m always disappointed when it’s not mentioned in any discussion about OCD.

Though you probably can’t tell from this post, I really am pleased that OCD is being talked about. And I’ll be even happier still when we can better communicate the truth about what this disorder actually entails.




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28 Responses to It’s Not a Severe Mental Illness, Is It?

  1. I cannot STAND people making the ‘we all have little bits of it’ comment! I thought the same as you when I saw the video!

    • Yes, “we all have little bits of it” is a tough one. If I’m having a face-to-face conversation with someone and they say this, I usually take the opportunity to explain that what they are talking about is NOT OCD. Most people seem to appreciate the education…….I think :)!

      • Kaiser says:

        I think everyone with OCD encounters that misconception quite frequently. I have to admit that every time someone says “I’m so OCD about that”, or tries to be understanding by saying essentially what King said it rankles me, because there is utterly no comparison.

        Where people fall short is in recognizing the truly debilitating anxiety and even terror that OCD sufferers live with all the time. Even today, after 20 years with OCD and 10 years during which it inflated to nightmarish proportions after a traumatic incident and I got addicted to (and detoxed from) benzodiazepines, my family does not really comprehend it. Not to sound petty, but I sometimes think about what it would be like if there were a means of allowing my family or others who make such comments to have OCD for one day and then ask them what they think.

        P.S. Larry King is a notoriously bad interviewer and probably the wrong person to discuss pretty much anything of consequence with 🙂

        Really appreciate your site!

      • Thank you so much for sharing, Kaiser, and I totally agree with you about those without OCD not being able to comprehend the magnitude of the disorder. I don’t have OCD but I saw how it almost destroyed my son. I think even though those of us without the disorder can’t really know what it’s like, we can still acknowledge how much our loved ones are suffering and do out best to support them in the right ways. Thank you for your insight.

  2. I just watched the video for the first time. Thanks for making your followers aware of it! Mr. Mandel did OK. He did attempt to say that OCD can be a HUGE problem. Mr. King (and perhaps Mr. Mandel as well) could have sent a far more powerful message had they NOT had a conversation with a “humorous” tone. That tone (IMHO) took away from the message of how VERY serious a problem OCD can be. Despite that it is always great to see public awareness of OCD being improved.

    • You bring up a great point I think. After all, Howie Mandel is a comedian, so people expect him to be funny and entertaining. This only makes a serious conversation about OCD even more difficult, and as you say, makes the disorder seem like no big deal. Thanks for your insightful comment!

  3. I think Howie could have done a much better job if not constantly interrupted. Any time he began to explain, he was cut off. I am so happy that he often tries to bring his mental health issues out to the forefront. I’ve seen other interviews where he’s had more time to speak without interuption and he did a really good job. 🙂

  4. says:

    Howie Mandel is very public that many years ago he built a separate home so if someone in his family becomes sick, he can go leave and go into his own place and not be around sickness. He also will not shake hands with anyone because of his fear of germs. He is a great entertainer, but I don’t think he is a great spokesperson for a healthy person living with OCD. I would also like to encourage out stop using the term “severe” when referring to mental illness. This is a term used by NPO and govt agonies when they are referring to funding for people with MI to determine funding. I do believe it is a way to perpetuate stigmatization of people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder from the rest of the community with neurobiological brain disorders. I believe we all need to work together to share information and get a stronger voice in voting, education, access, employment and community. Diagnosis of “mental Illness” is often used as a label rather that a way to gather information to help people live healthier lives. I appreciate your posts so much! Best, Lorre

    • I agree that OCD seems to rule a good part of Howie’s life, and he certainly has many accommodations put in place for himself. Not many of us can afford to build a home to go to when our family becomes ill, and that’s a good thing….talk about avoidance and enabling! I do wish he could be more of a spokesperson for proper treatment, but we all do what we can,and at least he is talking about his disorder.
      In regards to using the term “severe” I use it primarily to distinguish Dan’s experiences with debilitating OCD from OCD that’s just “there” (mild OCD). I understand your concerns however. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I speak about my experience a lot and it is very stressful to have people say, “Oh but everyone experiences that” (I usually get this in reference to my extreme rage) because your experience is being discounted and now you have to defend yourself.

    I’ve always been thrown off by the term “severe mental illness.” They’re all listed as being that. No one wants to be severe but we don’t pay attention to “regular” mental illness. My borderline traits diagnosis gets me nowhere within BPD treatment because it’s not seen as “severe” but yet I have as much garbage in my history and present as people with the full disorder diagnosis.

    Like you said, functioning does not mean they are ok. Many of us could probably be functioning a lot better. I function, I’m pretty good, but I would love if I could stop feeling like I was going to die when my partner goes out with his friends for the night.

    Well, that’s my little rant 😛 Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks for sharing, Kristen, and I wouldn’t classify your comment as any kind of rant :). For some reason, I think people often feel they have to say things like “everyone experiences that” or “I have that too” to let the other person think they understand. Somehow saying, “I hear you and I’m here for you,” or something similar just doesn’t seem like enough, though often it is all the person who is suffering wants/needs to hear.
      Thanks for all your thoughts……I always enjoy hearing your opinions!

  6. I get tired of the “I’m like that too” comments. I wonder if some people think they’re making me feel better to say that? I agree with your comments about being high functioning. My first psychiatrist called me high functioning, and I couldn’t believe it. Inside, I was not functioning. But to the world, I was living a “normal” life. I suppose I got away with that partly because I lived by myself and could control “my world” without others seeing me.

  7. And, I would add, I think I probably downplayed my symptoms with the doc. Or at least didn’t speak openly about how wretched I felt.

    • Thanks for sharing, Tina, and I think you make a great point that your “high functioning” was outwardly only. Of course, YOU knew how wretched you felt. I imagine that must have been such a confusing and scary time for you.
      As I said in my comment above to Kristen, I believe people do think “I’m like that too” is a helpful comment………..they mean well but unless you REALLY are “like that too,” not the right thing to say!

  8. ocdhope2014 says:

    I’m not surprised the Howie Mandel would not mention ERP. Having observed him talk about his OCD in the media over the years, I never got any sense that ERP was in the picture for him. In fact, the impression I’ve had is that he’s managed his symptoms primarily through avoidance for many years. I once heard him say the he build a 2nd smaller “clean” home on his property as an OCD “refuge.” Sometimes, having the financial means to create “OCD free zones” in one’s environment reinforces a pattern of avoidance and ingrains the symptoms even further.

    • Thanks for sharing, and I totally agree with you. Not many of us have the means to recreate our environments to be able to live “comfortably” with OCD…..and that’s a good thing because, as you say, this avoidance only makes the OCD stronger.

  9. I like the severe classification not for my daughters sake but in explanation of her OCD to others. Most people would not realize that she has OCD unless they live with her. One of my clients used the term Invisible Wheel Chair when she was talking about her anxiety issues. She said she just wished people could see her invisible wheelchair to know that she is not OK. If you met her (and my daughter) you would not know they have a problem, it is hidden. This makes it harder for people to understand what is going on. Yet her anxiety and behavior, at least at first, were severe and I had a hard time getting others to understand. When I used the term severe they would at least get a different picture in the minds.

    I also wanted to mention an article I found this morning about children changing. I found as my daughter has grown older and grown out of a lot of her OCD stuff (thanks to ERP, Movement Therapy and EFT) I still find myself questioning is it OCD or her or teen years? Take a look at this article:

    • I totally get what you are saying about the term “severe” Donald. At the very least, it gets people’s attention.
      Thanks for the link to that article, which I just read. I think everyone who has children, of any age, should read it. And yes, those teen years come with some pretty interesting behaviors, with or without OCD. Good luck 🙂 and thanks for sharing!

  10. Today, at a recruiting event at my university, the high school girl beside me said, “I have OCD, so these uneven strings on the backpack are really bugging me.”

    I waited. I didn’t say anything at first. It’s my job to recruit her to my school, to keep her happy, enjoying her day, etc.

    But I couldn’t let the teachable moment slip by.

    So I said quietly to her, “Do you really have OCD?”

    “No,” she said.

    “I really do,” I said and gave her my “credentials.” I kept my voice lighthearted as I said, “OCD is really debilitating and even causes a lot of people to commit suicide, so I think you’d be better classified as ‘quirky.'”

    “Oh wow,” she said.

    And then I changed the subject and talked about the recruitment event and how her day was going, made a couple jokes about different things. I think I was able to do BOTH my jobs: educate about OCD (without shaming) and recruit a student to my school

    But I do admit that it sure can be tricky sometimes!

  11. mssarahashley says:

    I know there are people who mean well when they say it, but the one thing I hate hearing when I tell someone about my OCD is, “I totally understand where you’re coming from/what you’re talking about.” No one’s situation is exactly the same as another person’s, and phrases like that, and, “We all have a little bit of that” can seem/feel so invalidating.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and so many people (including myself) agree with you. Sometimes I think people think that’s just a nice thing to say, so you don’t feel alone, but, as you say, it has the opposite effect, because they DON’T totally understand!

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