OCD Awareness Week: an interview with Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale

Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale is the founder of the Peace of Mind Foundation, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people suffering from OCD. She was the first ever national spokesperson for the International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation – where she is now a member of the board of directors – and she regularly engages in advocacy, clinical work, research and teaching related to OCD, anxiety disorders and the mental health stigma.

We sat down with Dr. McIngvale on Day 5 of OCD Awareness Week to talk about why this is an important week and how you can find OCD treatment and community. 

Why is it important to spread awareness about OCD and what do you want people to know about it?

OCD, like any mental health condition, is a hidden and silent illness. Many people can be suffering without anyone even knowing because it’s just not visible. It’s important that people acknowledge it as an illness and as something that’s real and disabling. A lot of people don’t understand the severity of it.

We’re slowly getting better as a culture about recognizing and treating mental health conditions – but it’s a space that has historically had a stigma and a lot of misunderstanding. Do you think OCD specifically is often misunderstood?

Absolutely – the slogan we love is “OCD is not an adjective.” It’s a perfect statement because so many people refer to OCD incorrectly – they might say, “you should see my coworker’s desk, she’s so OCD.” 

But OCD is not just these simple personality characteristics and it doesn’t refer to someone who is a “neat freak” or likes to have things a certain way. It’s a disabling, chronic mental illness – it’s actually one of the top 10 reasons why people file for disability in the U.S.

OCD specifically is one of the top 10 reasons, not just mental health conditions?

Yes – OCD affects 3% of the worldwide population, which makes it one of the most prevalent chronic mental health conditions. That’s more prevalent than bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example.

How can someone know if they might have OCD or could benefit from treatment?

There’s no handbook for it, and it can be subjective. But ask yourself if any characteristics, rituals or behaviors are interfering with your ability to function or causing distress or depression. 

There’s no such thing as getting treatment too soon. My view is, why wait? It’s better to get your symptoms addressed as soon as possible instead of waiting until they are really interfering with your life to address them.

If someone has decided to seek treatment for OCD, what can they expect? 

Treatment for OCD is exposure with response prevention, which is a specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It’s basically exactly what it sounds like – you slowly and systematically expose individuals to the things they’re afraid of – to their perceived fears or the things that cause them anxiety – and teach them how to manage it and lean into it without ritualizing. 

You’ve said before how important it was for you to meet other people who were also struggling with OCD – how can people find those communities?

You can go to PeaceOfMind.com and learn more about ways you can join our community – we offer online and in-person support groups. You can also visit the International OCD Foundation website, which offers so many ways to connect with other people, including a yearly conference. 

Is there anything else you want people to know about OCD?

The most important thing is just knowing that treatment works and that there is effective care for people with OCD. So many of us are afraid to talk about it because we don’t know what people are going to think – but the reality is that OCD is a prevalent illness and treatment really can help.