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Rethinking terminology: discussing mental health and the AP Stylebook

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NOVEMBER 14, 2019

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Content warning: suicide

The discrimination against persons diagnosed with mental illness is slowly decreasing. More people are sharing their hardships with sympathetic ears. But as the conversations increase, it is important to remember to practice and promote sensitivity. Words, written or verbalized, carry a lot of meaning. The wrong phrase can unintentionally offend someone or make the speaker appear ignorant and insensitive. 

As journalists, we have an obligation to be informative and sensitive in our reporting. To help us achieve that, we read our bible — the Associated Press Stylebook, a guide to spelling, grammar and the best practices in journalism. 

According to the AP Stylebook, a person should not be described as mentally ill unless it is absolutely necessary to the story and if a proper diagnosis can be credibly sourced. In these instances, specificity is key. AP recommends journalists write that a person is “diagnosed with” instead of using a mental illness to describe them. For example, “He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents” instead of “He was schizophrenic.” A person is not their illness. 

When stating a person’s mental illness, one should be careful not to use language that denotes pity. The AP advises against using phrases such as “afflicted with,” “suffering from” and “victim of.” Instead, the word “has” is more apt — it is simple, effective and neutral. When reporting about sexual assault, many advocates prefer the term “survivor” to that of “victim.” Whenever possible, allow the person to speak about their mental health diagnosis. Journalists should also provide common symptoms in the article and list useful resources. 

In crime reporting, one should not assume that mental illness is a motive. Past history of mental illness does not provide a reason or a tendency toward violent acts. It is not in their scope of knowledge for first responders to say that someone acted out because of mental illness, and these statements should not be used as fact in articles. 

Studies show that suicide rates have risen in correlation to media reports on suicide. As such, AP states that it does not report on suicides unless it was by someone noteworthy or happened in an unusual way. When reporting a suicide, it is best to leave out details about the method and include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Terminology is also important when writing about suicide. AP advises against using the word “committed” because it implies crime. Similarly, “failed” and “succeeded” have terrible implications. Also, a “failed suicide attempt” is redundant and damaging to at-risk persons because of the connotation of “failure.” In news reporting, use “killed himself,” “took her own life” or “died by suicide.” 

As public informants, journalists have to uphold these practices. But as a society, we also need to be vigilant of the power our words have. 

There are many phrases — which may have been, at one point, “correct” and popular — that have now been phased out. Among them, the word “retarded” is the most striking example. In colloquial usage, this word — defined as a person with slow physical, mental or emotional development — came to be an expression of dissatisfaction or low regard. The term is now regarded by the Oxford English Dictionary as “dated” and “offensive.” 

The problem with the colloquial usage of the word “retarded” is that it creates a connection between people with intellectual disabilities and something negative or stupid. It reinforces stereotypes that people with these deficiencies are incapable and inferior. Many mental illnesses have become synonymous with insults or “quirky” behavior in daily usage; this diminishes the plight of many and prevents at-risk people from seeking help because of the discrimination. 

Finally, we come to a more recent phenomenon, something I myself am guilty of. The phrase “on the spectrum” is now colloquially used by individuals when describing someone who exhibits what they perceive as “weird” behavior. Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the psychology bible — and was created to diagnose individuals who experience autism disorder with varying conditions and degrees of severity. According to Yahoo Lifestyle, “on the spectrum” is the new “retarded.” This phrase is used to insult, and it concurrently spreads misinformation about ASD.

Moreover, stop saying you’re “OCD” just because you like a little tidiness in your life unless of course, you actually were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

We need to be careful about the words we use when dealing with sensitive subjects such as mental health. Our words can hurt and silence others, whether or not we intend to do so. The adoption of misleading phrases into daily slang normalizes negative connotations about these disorders. Think before you speak. 

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected].

JUNE 09, 2020