First, she made waves as the meme-able Barb in “Stranger Things.” A part on the hit teen drama “Riverdale” and the Netflix original movie “Sierra Burgess Is A Loser” followed. Now, the rising star is accepting a new role as a mental health advocate. We spoke to her about her journey, and why she’s encouraging others to do the same.
Sharing her story
This spring in “Teen Vogue,” the 21-year-old actress detailed her experience living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other mental health challenges. Purser has been dealing with these in her life since middle school. Yet her conditions went untreated for years, eventually leading to suicidal ideations and a mental breakdown. Purser is revealing intimate details of her off-screen world. “I know firsthand how isolated mental health issues can make a person,” she shares. “I really just want to be part of the group of people who gives it a voice and a name and helps other people feel less alone.”
In particular, the young star felt compelled to speak up about OCD, a common disorder marked by obsessive and compulsive physical behaviors or mental patterns. Too often, Purser, shares, it becomes the “butt of the joke.” Media portrayals of OCD manifesting as extreme cleanliness lead people to either further dismiss it as comical or casually self-diagnose.
The reality is OCD can be an exhausting, debilitating challenge. Purser’s obsessive thoughts took a dramatic toll on her friendships as well as her self-esteem. “It’s so easy to say, ‘just talk to a friend or a family member’ but, it is a lot easier said than done,” she shares. Even surrounded by loving family and a circle of friends, she recalls feeling like a “freak;” she was unsure what was wrong with her and unsure where to turn. “It was through the Internet,” she recalls, “that I discovered what OCD was — that I had a very explainable and treatable illness. And that was really a relief.”
When Purser finally broke down and opened up to her parents, they helped her find a therapist. One that specializes in OCD for adolescents. “It really has been one of the most life changing relationships,” she shares. But the actress also acknowledges the harmful stigma around therapy. Again, she blames her industry for perpetuating damaging narratives — “that if you’re seeing a therapist, you’re overly emotional and you can’t handle your problems by yourself” — that “isolate people who are already suffering even further into themselves.” On the contrary, she shares, “my experience with my therapist has been so positive. It’s been such a relief to have somebody to talk to who understand how my mind works and can help me find solutions.”
Her therapist presented medicine to her as a possible part of the solution. “I would take a pill and the next day I would be happy and everything will be great,” Purser admits. She encourages those seeking help to be patient when trying medicine. Additionally, know that ongoing treatment is about finding the balance between talk therapy and medicine that works for you.
“Therapy and medication have made my life a lot less scary,” Purser shares. “They haven’t gotten rid of my depression, anxiety, and OCD, but they’re easier to deal with. Now I feel that I have the tools to sort of rationalize with myself when I’m having those feelings… To anybody who’s struggling, I would say that it really can get better. There may not be a cure, but there are treatments that can make your life so much easier and happier.”