How Howie Mandel Was Finally Diagnosed After Decades of Living with OCD

Howie Mandel
Actor and ‘America’s Got Talent’ judge Howie Mandel opens up about living with OCD for decades and how receiving treatment after an official diagnosis helped change his life. thecelebrityfinder/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
  • Comedian Howie Mandel is one of an estimated 1.2% of U.S. adults who live with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Mandel lived with OCD for decades before getting a diagnosis.
  • He shares his journey with OCD in hopes of helping others find help.

Intrusive thoughts and compulsions have always been present in acclaimed comedian Howie Mandel’s life. But as a child, he didn’t know how to label them.

“I wouldn’t learn to tie my shoes because I didn’t want to touch the laces cause they had touched the ground, so everybody bullied me and I didn’t have a friend in school because I just would rather them think I can’t tie my laces,” he told Healthline.

He recalled his younger brother holding up the laundry hamper lid during fights to ward him off.

“I would melt and scream in terror and do anything [he] wanted,” said Mandel.

He also practiced rituals that he needed to execute, such as sitting in a certain way, and he wanted other people to sit in certain ways too, like without their legs crossed.

“Everything bothered me. I just couldn’t move on in life unless things were made my way, not only by me, but everybody who was in my periphery,” he said. “But it was just [brushed off as] the quirkiness of Howie, not anything that anybody diagnosed or said, ‘well this is strange. This is different. Why is he so obsessed with the washing and the cleaning?’ and all the other things that I needed to do.”

Decades of living without a diagnosis for OCD

Mandel was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in his 40s, after his wife pushed him to get help.

OCD is defined by uncontrollable and recurring thoughts or obsessions and repetitive behaviors (compulsions).

Mandel’s obsessions negatively affected his wife and kids to the point where he made them engage in cleanliness activities, such as washing their hands repeatedly, putting on gloves, avoiding touching the phone, and disinfecting everything in the house.

“I don’t know if you can imagine what that is like to live with somebody who was trying to make my life so comfortable it kept my children and my wife so busy in this kind of crazy world, so she made me go to a psychiatrist; it was an ultimatum, and I got diagnosed, which lifted a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Mandel.

The fact that Mandel had been living with OCD for more than four decades before getting diagnosed is common, said Dr. Helen Blair Simpson, co-research director of the NewYork-Presbyterian Center for Youth Mental Health and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Studies show that one-third of adults with OCD first experienced symptoms in childhood.

“[Delayed diagnosis] is both because the person with OCD might not know what they have and might hesitate telling people about their symptoms, and because clinicians might not ask about OCD or recognize the symptoms,” Simpson told Healthline.

Working to help remove stigma from living with OCD

While an OCD diagnosis gave Mandel some relief and hope that there were treatments and methods to manage his condition, he said initially he felt embarrassed and ashamed.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody that I had a mental health problem. I thought that was a sign of weakness. It was embarrassing, so as I sit here and talk to you today this is 180 degrees from where I was in my 40s,” he said.

Much of his initial hesitation to be open about OCD is due to stigma around mental health conditions, particularly OCD.

While Simpson said the stigma is far less in younger generations than in older generations, she believes it still exists.

“What I notice today is that people sometimes still discuss mental health conditions, such as OCD, in a joking manner,” said Simpson. “Just like you would go to a doctor for any physical health condition, it is critical to seek medical attention for any mental health concerns and to treat these conditions with seriousness.”

Society has moved forward in reducing stigma, but Mandel said it still remains, including in the medical field.

“I’ve talked on Capitol Hill to try to get insurance companies to [approach] the funding for mental health the same way they do for physical health,” he said. “If you break a leg and you have an x-ray, you’ll get it fixed and paid for. If you have a mental health issue and you can’t see it on an x-ray, it’s hard to get diagnosed and taken care.”

Asking for help can be life-changing for people living with OCD

Mandel teamed up with the virtual platform NOCD to help connect people living with OCD with resources.

One aspect of the platform is that it provides mental health professionals trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, which promotes exposing oneself to the thoughts, images, objects, and situations that make them anxious and then learning to avoid engaging in compulsive behavior related to those.

Patrick McGrath, PhD, chief clinical officer of NOCD, said that, in his opinion, ERP is the treatment of choice for OCD because it does not try to treat the obsessions.

“We all have thoughts that we consider intrusive or unwanted, but we do not all have OCD,” he told Healthline. “It is the occurrence of the compulsions that ERP targets. It is the compulsions that are the source of the problem, and therefore must be the target of the therapy.”

He noted that people with OCD do not want to have the intrusive thoughts, images, and urges that make up their obsessions, and that telling them to stop thinking them doesn’t help.

“In fact, telling someone to stop thinking about something just makes them think about that thing even more. So, it is not about not thinking about something. It is about learning to not pay attention to or believe everything that pops into your head. Obsessions may be disturbing, but they are not truths,” he said.

ERP has been shown to work in people of all ages, said Simpson.

“Alone or in combination with medication, ERP can help up to two-thirds of people who might be struggling to minimize their OCD symptoms,” she said. “To achieve these excellent outcomes, one needs a skilled clinician and an engaged client who practices the skills being taught.”

Mandel echoed the sentiment and said finding treatment today is much easier than it was when he was living with undiagnosed OCD.

“Be aware that if there’s a problem with yourself or someone you know…there are places to go for help and every diagnosis is kind of unique and what works for you might not work for me, but I promise if it doesn’t work for you, there is something else that can be tried,” he said. “[I] take care of myself and it’s worth the fight.”

Takeaway

Comedian Howie Mandel is one of an estimated 1.2% of U.S. adults who live with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Mandel lived with OCD for decades before getting a diagnosis.

He is sharing his journey with OCD in hopes of helping others find help.

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