Howie Mandel reveals how struggling with mental health can be "debilitating." After being diagnosed with OCD as an adult, he's pushing for a more open conversation.
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Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, can be crippling. A mental health disorder characterized by a cycle of obsessions or compulsive behaviors, OCD can look any number of ways. According to the International OCD Foundation, about one in 100 adults—or two to three million people in the US—currently have OCD, and it can manifest over anything from germ contamination to relationships. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) characterizes the obsessive component of OCD as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are … intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress” that the individual attempts to suppress, ignore or neutralize. The compulsive component is defined as “repetitive behaviors” or “mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to the rules that must be applied rigidly.”
It’s possible that someone in your life has OCD and you don’t even know it—in fact, comedian and TV personality Howie Mandel went for years without a name for his symptoms. As he works alongside the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the mental healthcare platform NOCD, the America’s Got Talent judge spoke to shine a light on how OCD can play out in an individual’s life, the strategies he uses to manage his OCD, and why it’s so critical for us to pull back the curtain and talk about mental health. (As the NAMI estimates, one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and one in 20 experience serious mental illness.)
Howie Mandel on his OCD diagnosis
Q: Howie, thanks for talking with us. We’ve heard you make reference to your OCD in the past, and we’re grateful for this first-hand discussion. When a lot of people think about OCD, they might think of someone with the habits of Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory, or the TV show, Monk: constant hand-washing, checking locked doors, these repeated patterns of behavior. What are some of the ways OCD shows up in a person’s life that you think might surprise most people?
Howie Mandel: OCD comes in many forms, and is often misdiagnosed. I’ve been living with OCD and severe anxiety my entire life and it’s like living in a nightmare, but there are ways to cope and manage.
OCD manifests itself in four main ways: contamination and washing, doubt and checking, ordering and arranging, and unacceptable or taboo thoughts. Symptoms are obsession, compulsion or both. For me it was repetitive and intrusive thoughts and fixations often brought on by my debilitating fear of germs.
Q: What are the strategies you use to manage your OCD?
Howie Mandel: I always try to anchor myself. Quality of life is a real gift. I remind myself that I have to be a champion of my own life, keep going, and push through. There isn’t a week or even a day that goes by that I don’t have a little bit of a struggle, but I have developed coping skills, I have a loving family, friends, and therapeutic tools that work, like NOCD. I often use my humor to get through the toughest moments. If I’m not laughing, I’m crying—so I choose the first as best as I can.
Q: You weren’t officially diagnosed with OCD until you were an adult. Can you talk about that experience? What had your symptoms been, and how long had you been aware of them? What has having a name for these struggles done for you?
Howie Mandel: Yes, I wasn’t officially diagnosed with OCD until I was an adult, but knowing what I know now, it is something that I’ve battled since I was a young kid. After so much mental suffering throughout most of my life, it was a gift, first, to identify my issue as OCD. Once I was diagnosed, my journey to becoming a highly functioning, productive person could begin. My wife pushed me to get help to save our marriage. The top two barriers were—and remain—the stigma attached to OCD and the lack of access to high-quality treatment. NOCD is covered by most insurance providers today.
It’s why I am so passionate about changing the conversation in America, to destigmatize mental health and OCD, because if we could just talk to people, educate people, empower people with information and knowledge, and coping skills to help manage and push through with the support of community and therapies like NOCD offers, no one would have to go through what I went through and feel alone.
Howie Mandel on transparency around mental health
Q: What’s the most important insight you’ve learned about OCD?
Howie Mandel: I’ve learned that we have to accept that we are not in control of the planet, and what happens around us, but still have to thrive and push through because life is precious. We have to change the conversation and destigmatize mental health because people need to know they are not alone and there are resources out there to help and support, like NOCD.
Q: What would you say to someone who thinks they might have OCD?
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Howie Mandel: You are not alone. Seek support and help from professionals. There are so many people who are misdiagnosed, so take the important steps to get help, and find community and treatment so you can thrive and live!
Q: What do you think about the rising trend of seeing men talk about their mental health?
Howie Mandel: I think it’s amazing! I think it’s important, and I think that it’s necessary. In order to empower people to not feel alone we have to change the conversation and destigmatize mental health and conditions like OCD.