I started going to therapy the summer before my junior year. At the end of my first session, my therapist told me, without hesitation or fanfare, that I had OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).OCD is characterized by unwanted thoughts or fears (obsessions) that causes one to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions ). As far as mental disorders go, it’s not uncommon; nearly 2% of the world’s population has OCD.
The best way I can describe my own experience with OCD is that it can make anything and everything into a question — and that question is often, “what if?” Harmless, everyday actions or ideas can ignite any one of my intrusive fears and lead me to seek comfort in tasks that my brain thinks will prevent that fear from taking place.
Fortunately, I live in a time in which discussion around mental health has become increasingly destigmatized; a few years ago, I would never have felt comfortable sharing my OCD experience with anyone, let alone in a college paper. Improving mental health education and accessible social media “health advice” have led to more and more people seeking valuable and even life-saving help.
What hasn’t helped anyone is the gradual trivialization of mental illness that has occurred alongside the destigmatization. And — prepare to be shocked — a lot of this is directly linked to capitalism and merchandising.
I want to stress the fact that OCD does, without a doubt, make my life worse. It’s annoying and inconvenient and, at times, very frightening. I don’t think of it as a personality quirk or fun fact, and I don’t think any mental disorder should be thought of as such.
So when I see $20 shirts online that read “OC/DC” or “OCD: Obsessive Cat Disorder,” it definitely rubs me the wrong way.
Big corporations, particularly within the realm of fashion, love to take any kind of label — positive or negative — and capitalize on it. Take, for instance, Shein. The company sells a “mental health-themed” shirt that reads: “Grow through what you go through.” If Shein would take their own advice, the company would grow to stop subjecting their workers to inhumane working conditions and to pay them a livable wage, but instead, the company is looking for ways to profit from mental illness whilst promoting the false notion that all mental health struggles can be “grown through.”
Many other fashion companies are guilty, as well. Urban Outfitters has sold shirts reading “depression” and “eat less,” while Forever 21 has opted for a more catchy “stressed, depressed but well-dressed” tanktop. You can find jewelry and accessories in many online stores with subtle themes of mental health, meaning that words like “anxiety” are spelled out in huge, clunky, impossible-to-miss gold letters.
And the fast fashion industry is far from the only culprit. Although there are many helpful online mental health resources, there are many harmful ones, as well. Messaging around self-care has become prominent in the last few years as businesses seek to profit from customers’ desires to improve or rework their lifestyles: more than $500 million is spent on self-help books in America every year.
It’s all marketing — most of these companies really don’t care about our mental health and view us as yet another category of customer to win over. This stuff isn’t secret, either. A 2019 LinkedIn article bears the title: “How promotional merchandise can help your customers’ mental well-being.” The author encourages businesses to add their voices to the mental health conversation, noting that this can help make a company appear to be “not just a faceless organization, but rather a brand with a conscience.”
God forbid that we begin to open up about our struggles with mental illness without buying the accompanying merchandise to match. There’s no shame in buying these products that are offered to us, because of course we’re drawn to them — we’re told that we should be. The blame is not on the customers or those who experience mental health struggles but on the corporations who capitalize on these struggles.
We can destigmatize without trivializing, and companies need to become more conscious of this. Before “adding their voices” to the mental health conversation, they should stop and think about whether their choices are truly seeking to further this conversation and to help those who suffer from mental illness.