“I don’t want to live anymore.” I said these words in the darkest time of my life earlier this year. I felt hopeless, beaten and useless. All of these feelings were associated with my mental illness. I am one of many students with OCD. I have panicked when given the smallest assignment, broken down crying in the middle of classes, missed school when my anxiety felt like it was too much, and spent entire school days in the guidance office unable to calm down. Chances are, you have a student just like me in your class. And we could use your help. So, what do you need to know about OCD?
OCD looks different in everyone. When most people think of OCD, they think of someone that washes their hands several times a day or someone who has to have everything in a certain place. While contamination and perfectionism do play a huge role in some kinds of OCD, there are many other ways OCD affects a person. It can get worse over time or stay the same.
My experience with my disorder goes back as far as I can remember and became debilitating over time. I would cry the moment I woke up and realized I had to go to school, rush around immediately after school trying to accomplish everything on my mental to-do list, have panic attacks during lunch about every little thing I had to do after school, and compare myself to others constantly. My life was a living nightmare.
Everyone with OCD experiences it in different ways, but they all face obsessions and compulsions daily. This causes stress, worrying and depression.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is described by the Mayo Clinic as “excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions).” According to the International OCD Foundation, doctors look for the following three things when diagnosing OCD:
1. The person has obsessions.
2. The person does compulsions (repeated behaviors done in order to prevent panic attacks or anxiety).
3. The obsessions and compulsions take a lot of time and interfere in daily activities such as work, school or spending time with friends.
So, what should you look for? Students with OCD may show signs of compulsions and obsessions in the classroom, such as:
Reassurance seeking: This occurs when a student is doubting themselves. OCD is sometimes known as “the doubting disorder,” so you may hear a student ask you the same question over and over again in order to be reassured. This could include saying things like, “Are you sure I don’t need to cite my sources?” or “Do I need my name on this?”
Contamination compulsions: These occur when a student with OCD is obsessing about the fear of being contaminated. Some examples of contamination compulsions are frequent hand washing/hand-sanitizer use, frequently asking to go to the bathroom, and excessive paper towel and tissue use.
Taking a long time on tests: Many people with OCD struggle with over-analyzing and perfecting. This can cause students to take a rather long time on tests because they are questioning their every move. You may notice students staring at their tests for long periods of time or going back to other questions and changing their answers.
Indecisiveness: Students with OCD may take a long time to make decisions. This is because they are likely to doubt their gut instinct. This may come up when picking a project topic or choosing a book to read.
Now that you know the common signs of OCD tendencies in the classroom, here are some ways you can help students that have OCD:
Self-care breaks: This is a 10- to 15-minute break away from the rest of the class where students can practice deep breathing or meditation. This will help them clear their minds and prepare themselves to return to class. Be sure that the self-care break is no longer than 15 minutes. Anything longer than 15 minutes becomes isolation (an unhealthy coping method).
Thought challenging: This technique helps students realize the truth behind a distorted thought and turn the thought into a healthy and balanced statement. First, ask the student, “What is your automatic thought?” Once you know the worry, ask, “What evidence do you have that this thought is accurate?” Next, find out what evidence they have that the thought is false. Finally, you can ask your student to create a balanced statement out of all the evidence they have come up with. An example of a balanced statement would be, “Even though I have homework tonight, I can still finish everything else I was supposed to do. My night is not ruined.” Be sure the statement addresses the reason(s) the thought is true and the reason(s) the thought is false.
Mental health services: There are numerous mental health professionals in the country. If you know of a program at a hospital or a treatment facility in your area, you can tell a student with OCD about it. Rogers Memorial Hospital helped me take my life back and I am incredibly grateful that I found it when I did. Referring a student to a mental health center could be what they need to turn their life around as well.
Don’t give reassurance: When you give a student reassurance, it only feeds their OCD. Be sure to only answer a question once and tell students to trust their gut instincts. This will help students overcome their fear of self-doubt by not receiving reassurance that makes their disorder worse. This may seem harsh to some, but pushing students with OCD to challenge themselves will help them in the long run. Students will eventually trust their initial ideas if you give them the opportunity to do so.
Talk to us in private: Showing interest in a student’s struggles is by far one of the most appreciated actions a teacher can take part in. Sit down with a student that is having a hard time and talk to the student. Let him or her know that you care and that you are there to help. This gives students hope when they feel as if they have no one that cares.
Don’t use “OCD” as an adjective: This could mean saying things like, “I am so OCD” or “OCD much?” Joking about OCD can make students feel as though you perceive their disorder as nothing serious. Be sincere with students and don’t joke about mental disorders.
I am a student with OCD. I know that I will face relapse and I will always have to fight my disorder. Teachers and counselors helped me in the toughest time of my life and, because of their support, I no longer want my life to end. I want to keep living and fighting. You could be the teacher that gives a student the hope he or she needs to keep fighting.
Bailee Rieman is a senior at Plainwell High School. She runs the blog FightingOCD.weebly.com to help other students and teens learn to cope with OCD and anxiety disorders.