Daisy Cox; @coolartbyacooldude

“You can’t have OCD, your room’s a mess”, I was told when I admitted that I had recently been diagnosed. “Everything needs to be highlighted in the same colour, otherwise it’ll mess with my OCD.” For an intelligent concentration of people, a profound understanding of this illness remains elusive and many have trouble accepting it isn’t just glorified and meticulous organisation.

As a society, we have made significant strides in awareness and support for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. Most now recognise the belittling impact of casually claiming “I’m depressed” when they feel momentarily sad. However, in this journey, obsessive compulsive disorder has been overlooked and relegated to a trivial label, especially when over one million people suffer from it in the UK alone.

“Obsessive compulsive disorder has been overlooked and relegated to a trivial label”

To gain a deeper insight into its invasive and unsolicited role in Cambridge life, I spoke to several students about their experiences with the mental illness.

Cambridge life appears to exert a profound influence on the manifestation of OCD symptoms. Among the students I interviewed, over half reported experiencing their symptoms flaring up since starting university. “I need everything to be in certain conditions to be able to work efficiently,” an anonymous MML student told Varsity. The student reports fixating on factors such as the time at which they begin working or securing a ‘good spot’ in the library, as their OCD leads them to believe these aspects will directly impact the quality of their work. A second year Lucy Cav student echoed this sentiment, highlighting that even during the rare stress-free moments in their degree, OCD always seems to find something to provoke anxiety about.

Upon having intrusive thoughts, Nuala, a second year student at Churchill, finds it “virtually impossible to get anything done.” Due to her diagnosed OCD, she frequently encounters the need to justify her difficulties to individuals who may not fully grasp why she struggles to meet deadlines or attend lectures and classes. Another interviewed student also agreed that any time spent on compulsions and intrusive thoughts only served to further distance them from their academic work.

“It’s as if my OCD has its own set of lawyers in my prefrontal cortex, attempting to convince me that a false memory is reality”

Elisha Carter, a second year Caius student, offered an insightful and groundbreaking description of OCD during our discussion: the idea that the brain continuously gaslights and blackmails itself. I can personally relate to experiences where it feels like my own mind is at war with itself. It’s as if my OCD has its own set of lawyers operating within my prefrontal cortex, attempting to convince me that a false memory is indeed reality.

One of my objectives is to explore the prevalence of OCD among Cambridge students. Why does it seem to be more prevalent at this University than in home environments? While I lack specific statistics to conclusively state that Cambridge has a higher percentage of individuals with OCD, the students I interviewed suspected that a substantial portion of the population here grapples with the disorder.

Perhaps the reason I feel more comfortable discussing this topic and can write this article is due to my time at Cambridge, where I’ve been surrounded by like-minded individuals. Although the university environment can be culpable for exacerbating symptoms, the opportunity to connect with others and discuss my experiences directly led to my diagnosis during Easter this year. I fear that had I not gone to university, I might have been less inclined to approach the subject.

Concerning the disorder’s supposed preponderance at Cambridge, two students I interviewed pointed out the relationship between OCD and the desire for control. “You want as much control as possible over your dream of attending Cambridge”, which often results in hyperfixation on the probability of academic success and the need for a fine-tuned study routine.

While it remains a constant obstacle, I’ve had to remind myself that perfection, although encouraged by Cambridge’s atmosphere, is not always attainable nor necessarily superior. Good, in many cases, is indeed good enough. And this is what I’ve had to tell myself to be able to even write this article.

“Good, in many cases, is indeed good enough”

The majority of students that I spoke with overwhelmingly sang the praises of the University’s extensive support system. Nuala and a second year student from Corpus have both experienced positive outcomes from college-organised accommodation adjustments. Others have found support through the University Counselling Service, as well as fully funded private therapy via The Medical Support Fund (Crane’s Charity).

However, like many mental health services, the University’s support system has imperfections. Another second year student felt their OCD wasn’t taken as seriously as it could have been, possibly because they don’t “fit the image of a typical sufferer.” This sentiment is one that many, including myself, have encountered. It’s crucial to recognise that not all individuals with OCD exhibit the same compulsions, and having a messy bedroom or not having the compulsion to wash your hands every few minutes doesn’t negate the experience of OCD.

As the student puts it, “Everybody experiences OCD differently.” To effectively address it, it’s essential to pay attention to individual experiences and needs rather than relying on stereotypes or preconceived notions of what it should look like.


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A significant majority – exceeding 85% of the students I interviewed – expressed that prejudices and misconceptions about OCD still persist, despite the progress made in understanding the disorder. The casual usage of phrases like “I’m so OCD” can be particularly frustrating for those who actually suffer from it. A second year MMLer articulates this frustration: “Calling yourself ‘a bit OCD’ just because you colour-coordinate your notes will definitely earn an eye roll from me.”

Perhaps individuals should not be held responsible for a frivolous misuse of terms or failure to comprehend the condition when the medical field itself sometimes misdiagnoses OCD as anxiety or depression. Nuala was fortunate to speak to a GP who had experienced her specific type of OCD and recognised her symptoms. However, this came only after she had been incorrectly diagnosed and treated for anxiety by a different medical professional.

While it can be bewildering for those of us grappling with the complexities of the disorder, it can be equally perplexing for individuals who believed they had a solid grasp of OCD when their comprehension merely skims the surface. Here is where the University’s influential position as a crucial instrument for raising awareness is required, as many individuals, both within and outside of the institution, look to it as a catalyst for progress. In this context, it appears collective efforts are needed to pave the way for greater understanding and support regarding obsessive compulsive disorder.

Visit Mind, The OCD Project, OCD-UK or OCD Excellence to learn more.