The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) of New Zealand has criticised Health Minister David Clark's choice of words of advice during the coronavirus outbreak.

On the day the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Clark urged New Zealanders to take every step to protect themselves and those around them and to take the pandemic seriously.

"Our director-general of health in New Zealand has been saying this is a pandemic in all but name for quite some time. We have been operating off our pandemic plan since early January," the minister told The AM Show this morning.

"What it does highlight is that people do need to take this seriously."

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"If people are feeling unwell, don't go out. The message… about washing your hands thoroughly. This is the time for OCD," he said.

"Give your hands a really thorough wash and dry regularly, if you are going to cough, cough into your elbows. But best of all, stay away from other people if you are not feeling well."

The MHF has released a statement criticising the minister's choice of words, calling it "disappointing" and saying the minister resorted to "thoughtless stereotypes about OCD".

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"It's not time for New Zealanders to get an often-debilitating mental illness. It's simply time to wash your hands to safeguard our whānau and communities. No need resort to thoughtless stereotypes about OCD."

In a statement circulating on social media, the MHF pointed out the dangers of stigmatising people who live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

"We are disappointed by the Minister of Health's choice of words this morning. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is a mental health condition that can be debilitating. It is widely misunderstood and the myth that people who live with OCD are just extra-committed to cleanliness creates barriers to recovery, treatment and understanding. Flippant use of the term 'OCD' contributes to misunderstandings and strengthens these barriers and we would have hoped the Minister of Health would have been more mindful of this and chosen his words more carefully.

"It is not time for New Zealanders to all experience a debilitating mental illness – it is simply time for all of us to commit to stringent hygiene practices that will safeguard our whānau and communities. This message can be conveyed without resorting to thoughtless stereotypes about OCD that dilute the seriousness of the condition and make it hard for those who do experience to get help and understanding," the statement added.

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"People who live with OCD experience repeated and obsessive intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images or urges. These cause great anxiety and can be extremely distressing. People try to find different ways to find relief or ease their distress by engaging in compulsions – repeated actions or behaviours that they feel driven to do, even when they know they are unnecessary or don't make sense. Often, performing the compulsive action makes people feel a little better at first, but their anxiety returns and compulsive behaviour can escalate.

This morning, the Minister of Health, when talking about guidance to wash hands regularly, stated that "This is the time...

Posted by Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand on Wednesday, 11 March 2020

"For some people, these obsessions and compulsions take over their lives and cause significant distress and disruption, impacting their ability to work, take part in society and have supportive relationships.

"Obsessions and compulsions about cleanliness are not uncommon for people who have OCD, but they are not the only way people experience OCD. For those who do experience obsessions and compulsions about cleanliness, it's important to understand this is not just a general desire to live in a clean and tidy environment. Their cleaning behaviours are driven by a deep anxiety that, for example, if they do not perform these behaviours then something terrible will happen to them, their whānau or the world. For the most part, they know these fears are not rational but that does not diminish the strong feelings they are experiencing, and this causes frustration and low self-esteem."

The MHF also said that a lot of people who suffer from anxiety disorders have been feeling increased distress over Covid-19 and disorders such as OCD can be triggered by this type of stress.

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"We urge everyone who is talking about the virus to be mindful of this and seek to ensure people have enough information to feel confident and reassured that they can look after their own health and the health of the people around them without inciting panic or anxiety."

On social media, people applauded MHF's position and called out the use of "flippant" language.

"Thank you for addressing this. As someone diagnosed with OCD it is already incredibly hard to get people to understand the problem, we don't need people using the term 'OCD' this way. It really irritates me when used like this as these people have no idea what we live with daily," one person commented.

"Very disappointing language coming from a 'minister'. I would expect to see a public apology. For those who suffer from OCD this is demoralising and an uncalled for comments," another Facebook user said.

The Herald has contacted the Health Minister for comment.