Words Matter, and Journalists Can Boost Understanding of Mental Illness by Using Them Properly

By Chris Adams

Words matter, and when reporting on mental illness and substance use disorders they can matter far beyond the specific story in question.

In a video with the National Press Foundation, Rebecca Palpant Shimkets discussed the stigma surrounding mental illness and how the media can further it by sloppy word choice or poorly-framed stories. Palpant Shimkets leads the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships in Mental Health Journalism, which awards grants to reporters to pursue stories dealing with those issues.

Journalism today is much more sensitive on these issues than it once was. Palpant Shimkets shared sensationalistic headlines from decades past about “violent crazies,” people who were “bonkers,” and “Roasted Nuts,” which was the banner headline on a story about a fire at a psychiatric facility.

That language is largely gone. But stories today still play up suicide and the way it was carried out. Mental health groups frown on such an approach, although Palpant Shimkets talked about several recent headlines that highlighted the method a famous rock musician had used to commit suicide.

“This isn’t about PC language and not hurting feelings,” she said. “This is about realizing that language has a way of creating isolation and marginalization.”

She talked about different forms of stigma, and how stigma can lead to discrimination. And she talked about guidelines from her organization as well as The Associated Press Stylebook that address mental health.

Among the key points from the AP:

  • Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.
  • “Mental illness” is a general term; use specific conditions and disorders when possible.
  • Do not use derogatory terms such as “insane,” “crazy,” “nuts” or “deranged” unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.
  • Do not assume mental illness is a factor in a violent crime.
  • Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from” or “victim of.”
  • Avoid interpreting behavior common to many people – sadness, anger, exuberance – as symptoms of mental illness.
  • Avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues, such as saying an event was “schizophrenic.”

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