Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Myths

I recently came across a very interesting article at the Masters in Healthcare blog, regarding the “10 Common Myths About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” In the article, the authors examine 10 commonly believed myths about this mental illness. Below I have copied the article…go here http://www.mastersinhealthcare.net/blog/ for more interesting blogs about popular healthcare issues.

Despite being one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders and present in as many as one in 50 U.S. adults, obsessive-compulsive disorder tends to occupy a gray area in the public consciousness that’s marked more by myth than truth. Chalk it up to stereotypes or characters like Jack Nicholson’s in As Good as It Gets, but many people hold to a system of misconceptions about OCD that simply aren’t true. Those with the disease or who have a loved one with it know the truth, but for everyone else, here are the myths people believe and the truth behind them.

  1. Any neat freak has OCD: OCD is a mental disorder. Period. It’s an anxiety disorder that leads those who have it to perform highly specific rituals as calming methods to fight they crushing anxiety. Being neat and orderly, even to the point of rigidity, doesn’t mean someone has OCD; it just means they like things clean. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder who keeps their house spotless isn’t doing it to look nice, but because they’re overwhelmed by anxiety when something is amiss. It’s a big difference, and one that’s often misunderstood.
  2. OCD is just about cleaning: This one comes on the heels of the previous one, as many people assume that those with OCD are devoted to cleaning house. Yet that’s just one symptom, and far from the only way the disease manifests itself. Per the DSM-IV, compulsions can be a variey of things that the person in question does to reduce stress or prevent “some dreaded situation or event,” and these can include everything from praying to counting silently to repeating words. Yes, cleaning things can be one of these compulsions, but it’s not the only one.
  3. People with OCD don’t have any willpower: This is a prevalent but insidious myth that paints people with obsessive-compulsive disorder as merely suffering from some kind of emotional weakness, as if their obsessions are something they could silence permanently if they’d only focus hard enough. As much as even people with OCD might wish this to be true, it isn’t. The disease is a mental one, and though many researchers are still targeting the specific cause, studies have shown that people with OCD have different patterns of brain activity than those without it.
  4. People with OCD focus on one person or idea: People with OCD aren’t limited to the thoughts that can consume them, and in many cases these aren’t about a specific person or place. Rather, these intrusive and unwanted thoughts are often about horrible, unreal situations defined by violence or irrationality, such as the thought of injuring their child. People with PCD recognize the irrationality of these thoughts, but that doesn’t make them less real, or painful, or hard to talk about even with professionals. Obsessions can be incredibly varied.
  5. OCD can be cured, and easily: There is no cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, it is possible for many patients with OCD to gain control of the disease and enjoy a stellar prognosis. This requires, as you might expect, a ton of work. People with OCD typically need a combination of medicine and behavioral therapy in order to begin the process of modulating their thoughts to the point where they can successfully label and control them.
  6. OCD affects more women than men: Some have observed that more women than men tend to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, but those observations are anecdotal. In reality, the disease affects men and women in almost equal measure. Why the discrepancy between myth and truth? Because men typically have a harder time expressing deeper emotions than women do, and that reluctance is multiplied when some were asked to discuss the intrusive and often very dark thoughts that defined their obsessions.
  7. OCD comes from stress: Again, if only wishing made it so, then people struggling with OCD could just take a few days off work and get back to “normal.” But that just isn’t the case. If you take away nothing else, remember than obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental one, not something brought on by a few hectic weeks at the office. It is true that major stressors can trigger symptoms, especially in traumatic situations like the death of a loved one. But the existence of stress can only ever exaggerate the OCD, not create it.
  8. People with OCD were raised poorly: Parenting has nothing to do with contracting obsessive-compulsive disorder. Raising a child to follow certain rules does not cause the disorder. However, as with the myth about stress, the truth is complex. Parenting styles don’t cause OCD, but they can exacerbate it when parents go too far in accomodating OCD behaviors in a well-meaning but fruitless attempt to manage the child’s stress level. This can lead to a strengthening of symptoms and behaviors and make the disease that much harder to treat. Yet criticism and hostility can also have negative consequences. The best result is to work with medical professionals to begin treating and structuring the child’s life.
  9. OCD is unchanging: This is an easy mistake to make: the public depictions of OCD are of people ritualistically cleaning dishes with no hope of an end in sight. Yet this is a total myth. As with many disorders, the earlier OCD is diagnosed, the better the person will be able to respond to treatment. Even if it’s not caught until late adolescence or adulthood, treatment and medication can do wonders to help people with OCD reduce the frequency and pwoer of the intrusive thoughts that are robbing them of mental freedom. With the right care, people with OCD can make speedy, giant strides toward a better life.
  10. Any desire to collect or organize can be linked to OCD: This myth gets spread by people who confuse the mental disorder of OCD with the far more common trait of orderliness or passion for collecting. For instance, a child might become heavily involved in collecting baseball cards or memorizing player statistics; this isn’t OCD, just the manifestation of a burgeoning interest. OCD doesn’t encompass behavior built around collecting or memorization, so don’t let these normal (if devoted) traits lead you to an inaccurate diagnosis. As with all else, proceed with an open mind.

Mask Making & Art Therapy

Mask making appears in many different cultures and throughout the course of human history. As an art therapy technique, I have found mask making with clients to be an incredibly interesting and often illuminating process for both of us.

Creating and then wearing a mask allows us to expose parts of ourselves that we are not usually willing to embrace in everyday life. Or, in contrast a mask may cover up who we really are at the moment, and then acts as a protective shield from our true feelings. Lastly, we could simply be trying on a different persona and allowing our imaginations to run wild!

I enjoy working with plaster of paris strips when creating a mask with a client. When appropriate, the plaster of paris can be applied directly to the client’s face in layers (make sure to apply a layer of vaseline over areas with hair – such as eyebrows, mustaches, etc). However this way of working is not appropriate for every person. It is a very intimate process, and the person who is having their mask created must be able to stay still for some length of time. For some, this type of human contact and stillness can be too triggering. In these situations, there is another technique that involves laying plaster strips over a pre-created face mold. The molds are usually plastic and can come in animal shapes as well as human face shapes.

There are many questions that the client can ponder when looking at the mask…did they paint the inside and the outside of the mask, or only one side? If so, is there a reason for this? Pay attention to colors used and the amount of detail or lack of detail. The client can have a dialogue with the mask – asking the mask what it needs, who it is, and what is has been created to tell him or her. Do they feel that the mask exposes their true feelings/self, or does it serve to hide them from the outside world?

Creating a mask also opens the door to other modalities such as drama and dance. Once the piece is created, encourage the maker to wear it and move in a way that reflects the mask’s persona. If a group of people have all made masks, there is even more possibility in allowing the group members to interact with one another through their masks and movement.

Mural Making & Art Therapy

Mural making has been a passion of mine for a long time. I have done murals myself, as well as facilitating group mural making. Group mural making provides the participants with unique insight into how they express themselves within a group setting and often brings about new revelations about each participant’s unique individual voice and how it relates to the whole. Mural making may take place over a single session or over a longer period of time. Materials can be decided based on what the members are most drawn to – whether it’s paint, markers, pastels, oil pastels, or collage images.

Below are a few key concepts to explore before, during, and after creating a group mural, taken from Art Therapy for Groups by Marian Liebmann.

  • How does the art form get started?
  • Whose suggestions are used? Ignored?
  • Do people take turns, form teams, or work simultaneously?
  • Is anyone left out?
  • Where is each person’s work situated, and how much space is used?
  • Do people add to other’s work?
  • Who is the leader or most active participant?
  • What influence do different kinds of boundaries have?
  • Is group painting an enjoyable or a threatening experience?

Other interesting points to explore are, how directed or non-directed does the group want to be? I have begun groups with no instruction, and asked that the first 10 minutes the group paints in silence. Afterwards, people may begin communicating through verbalization again. It is fascinating to rely solely on visual communication for the beginning of the mural.
Group mandalas can be created by drawing a large circle out, and then dividing the circle into pies. Each member begins with their own pie section, and every 5 minutes or so, members move to the section next to them in this round robin approach. Pay attention to what each member adds to the original section, and later conversation can revolve around why they chose to add their specific art to an area.
Another interesting approach is to have each member draw their own island and inhabit the island with things that they value. Then, challenge the group members to link up the islands in some way and explore the idea that “no man is an island” and how that was depicted visually. Who in the group had a difficult time connecting to others, and is this also their experience in life outside of the art making session? What are the sizes of each member’s islands, and how crowded are they with things – are some very simple, while others are elaborate?
These are just a few examples of ways to work within a group to create a mural. I have shared a few pictures of murals that I have painted, as well as a few that were done in groups. Enjoy!

Art Therapy Blogs!

Here are a few of my favorite current art therapy blogs…check them out!


(by my good friend Megan Graf!)








Chronic Illness and Death and Dying in a Pediatric Hospital

Amidst all of the intensity of working as an art therapist in a pediatric hospital, the experience of working with children who are in the process of dying remains the most emotionally charged experience that I have had.

In my hospital setting I work with chronically ill children. Many of these children can lead long and productive lives with the help of the medical care that they receive. However, some of these children are beyond medical help, and are in the process of dying. Sometimes these deaths come suddenly, and at other times a child may be dying over a period of months.

People often ask me how I can work with a chronically ill or dying child. They cannot imagine how difficult and emotionally intense this would be. That being said, I’d like to share a different side of this therapeutic process and some of what I have learned so far, as a very new art therapist in the field.

Art therapy functions in a very unique way for chronically ill and dying children. Below are a few key ways in which art therapy contributes to a child’s overall quality of life while hospitalized.

Coping Skills and Stress Management
Children living with a chronic illness, or in the process of dying undergo a huge variety of medical tests, daily taking of meds, and other intrusive procedures. Although these procedures are all necessary from a medical standpoint, they can take a psychological toll on the child and many children have a difficult time coping with the daily stresses of hospital life. Art therapy provides the children with a hospital experience that is not painful physically, and which provides them with a healthy outlet for stress relief.

Sense of Control and Mastery
In art therapy there are always choices to be made by the child creating the art. Choices can be as simple as, “which color do I want to put here?” or “what type of project would I like to do today?” In the hospital setting, choices are taken away from children (such as what they are wearing, where they are sleeping, and the meds they must take). However, art therapy is empowering because it places choices back in the child’s hands. In addition, even the act of being able to turn down an art therapy session can be empowering to a child, since the therapist is one person in the treatment team who they can say “no, not right now” to.

Expression and Communication
As a non-verbal means of communication and expression, art therapy goes “deeper than words” can go at times. A young patient recently said to me, “I can’t always find the right words for what I am feeling, but I always have art.” Especially for children, art can be a unique and personal form of communicating difficult and painful feelings. Part of the art therapist’s role is to be attentive to these expressions as they arrive, and help create a safe environment in which they can be expressed.

Building a Legacy
Building a legacy of artwork is a very powerful experience for all children, but especially for children who are in the process of dying. An art therapist may even encourage the family members to create with the child when appropriate. In addition, artwork serves as a visual record of the child’s experiences and feelings during their illness.

I see all of my pediatric patients as unique souls who are some of my greatest teachers. Through my work with them I am learning how to be more intensely present in the moment and appreciative of each child’s special way of seeing the world and expressing themselves in it. Each child has a story to tell, and art therapy is one of the many creative outlets that we can offer a chronically ill or dying patient.

Art Therapy and Sexual Abuse

In my work with both children and adults I have seen how powerful the process of making art can be. The ability of art to reach deeper levels than words has been particularly potent in the treatment of patients who have experienced sexual abuse.

I will never forget a young patient who was painting with me. She began smearing and layering dark colors across the canvas and became intensely focused in the process. On the top layer she added a vibrant splash of red, and then took the paintbrush and created a long splatter across the top of the painting. While watching her I observed out loud that her painting had many different layers and colors, and that she seemed to be expressing something in her work. She responded, “I’m putting all of my feelings onto the canvas.” When I asked her what some of those feelings might be, she said, “Feelings about my sexual abuse.”

This was the first time she had ever mentioned a history of sexual abuse to me. As she continued to paint she began to disclose the details. As she talked and painted I noticed that her style became more open and she eventually moved to working with brighter colors. When she was done with the piece she said that she wanted me to have the painting. In a way, I was symbolically taking on the emotions that she had expressed, and she was able to finish our session feeling some weight off of her chest. In addition she stated that “art helped me to express things I could not speak about so easily.”

In this young person’s life, art was an outlet that helped her greatly in processing and sharing her feelings about traumatic experiences. It did not take away her difficult past, but it helped to empower her and was a step along the way in her healing process.

Below is a link to an interesting article about children who have been sexually abused and art therapy. I think you will find it very informative and interesting.


Inspirational Art Quotes

Below are a few quotes that I find very inspirational and just wanted to share:)

Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos. – Stephen Sondheim

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world. – George Santayana

Artists don’t make objects. Artists make mythologies. – Anish Kapoor

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
– Scott Adams

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. – Henry Ward Beecher

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
– Pablo Picasso

Great art picks up where nature ends. – Marc Chagall

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. – Georgia O’Keefe

If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. – Vincent Van Gogh

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.
– Dorothea Lange

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton

Bipolar Disorder and Art Therapy

I found a very interesting website by a woman named Mara McWilliams. She is a woman living with Bipolar Disorder who has found a unique connection to art and poetry making. Here is her artist’s statement:

My work revolves around the concepts of hope, healing, and expressionism. I believe that by freely sharing emotion through color choices and brush strokes, we become in touch with our true selves. Creating art is almost a meditative process for me that is motivated by my spirituality. Due to technology, we long ago stopped needing the artist to accurately represent reality. I see my responsibility as an artist to give the viewer the opportunity to see worlds that before might have previously been shut off to them. Giving the viewer a different perspective on life, is perhaps the biggest honor an artist can receive.

As an openly Bipolar woman, the recurring goal of my work is to inspire other individuals with mental illness. I want those with a mental illness to know that there is a life full of wonderful possibilities after diagnosis.

I want others like myself to find the beauty in their unique mind and utilize it, like I have with my art. Art creates freedom and hope in my life. It is my goal to share the process of self-discovery and letting go that allows one to live a more stable life full of contentment.

Her site can be found at: www.maramcwilliams.com

Please take a moment to enjoy her writing and her art…I found it to be very inspirational, and yet another example of how art can heal.

Art Therapy Ideas

Sometimes people ask me what kinds of art therapy groups and individual sessions I do with my patients. What are some of the materials used or themes explored? Here is a list of some of the art therapy groups that I have led in the past few months at the hospital…

1. Seashell Creatures

2. Sand Paint

3. Underwater Worlds

4. Huichol Yarn Painting

5. Adinkra Symbol Suncatchers

6. Tissue Paper Collage

7. Memory Boxes

8. Painting Collage

9. Dreamcatchers

10. Rain Sticks

11. Resist Painting

12. Clay Mazes

13. Wire Art

14. Printmaking

15. Mural Making

17. Mondrian-Style Tape Art

18. Picasso Portraits

19. Bubble Printing

20. Model Magic

21. Pointilism Painting

22. Cartooning

23. Eraser Drawing

24. Rubbing Plates

25. Comic Strips

26. Recycled Art

27. Photography

28. Tin Foil Painting

29. Animal Environments

39. Graffiti Wall

40. Mask Making

I’ll highlight a few of these projects in upcoming posts and share tricks, techniques, and some examples of artwork created…


Here are a few pictures from the last mural that we did at the hospital. It is displayed in the front area of the “Zone” – which is our therapeutic play space. I sketched out the hot air balloon design, and then the mural was painted by a 5 year old patient. While painting she learned to mix her own colors and now refers to various blues by names such as: periwinkle, cobalt, and cyan. Amazing! I will post pictures of the current hospital mural soon.

p.s. I apologize for the glare and rather poor quality of the pictures – better ones next time with my husband the photographer’s help! 🙂