Style Guidance home

Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

addiction

Addiction is a strong, persistent need to engage in a certain behavior. The term is often used to describe substance use, but other behaviors like gambling may also be considered addictive. When describing someone who has an addiction, person-first language  sends a message that addiction is one aspect of someone’s life and doesn’t define them. Casual use of addiction language in a metaphorical sense (e.g. “She’s addicted to the latest season of X show”) can minimize the gravity of clinical addiction. In coverage of addiction-related issues, it may be helpful to include a helpline number such as the one for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-HELP).

anorexia

An eating disorder in which one restricts food intake and experiences severe anxiety around gaining weight. Anorexia can occur in people of any race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and size. It is not possible to tell if someone is or is not living with anorexia based on appearance. Nuanced coverage accounts for the physical, psychological, and behavioral dimensions of anorexia, whose characteristic feelings and thought patterns can persist even if food restriction does not. 

anxiety

Anxiety refers to apprehension of a potential yet distant threat. When someone says they “have anxiety,” they might be referring to a specific anxiety-related condition or generalized anxiety disorder, or they might be referring to the feeling of anxiety generally. If necessary and relevant to coverage to mention, it’s important not to assume or infer an official diagnosis. When deciding whether to mention a specific diagnosis of anxiety, there are several things to consider. Is it pertinent to your story? Is it a formal diagnosis you’ve verified? Do you have the person’s permission?

applied behavior analysis (ABA)

Applied behavior analysis is a method of modifying behaviors in autistic children through behaviorist techniques (i.e., rewards and punishments). ABA remains one of the most common behavioral interventions of autism; alternatives include occupational therapy and structured teaching. The effectiveness of ABA is under debate, and some consider the practice abusive. Exploring these debates helps ensure thoughtful coverage of differing practices and viewpoints within the autism community.

binge-eating disorder

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of excessive food consumption. It is not the same as overeating. It can be misleading to describe eating a lot of food as bingeing unless it’s in the context of bulimia or binge-eating disorder. Unless you’re writing about the concept of food addiction specifically, addiction-related terms can also be misleading when applied to nutrition or weight.

bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that used to be called “manic depression,” characterized by alternating episodes of unusually low mood (depression) and elevated mood (mania). When deciding whether to mention a specific diagnosis of bipolar disorder, there are several things to consider. Is it pertinent to your story? Is it a formal diagnosis you’ve verified? Do you have the person’s permission? Phrases like “X has bipolar disorder” or “X is being treated for bipolar disorder” (versus “is bipolar”) are ways to frame a diagnosis as just one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them.

bulimia

Language, Please is a living resource that will be regularly updated. We’re working hard on an entry for this topic — please check back in soon.

bullying

Bullying refers to aggressive, persistent behavior that is intended to embarrass, intimidate, isolate, coerce, or harm a vulnerable party. In general, bully works as a noun when speaking about bullying in general (e.g., “Childhood bullies often target submissive peers”). If speaking of a particular individual, however, person-first language is more precise (i.e., “Person X used to bully others” instead of “Person X was a bully”).

cannabis / marijuana

Language, Please is a living resource that will be regularly updated. We’re working hard on an entry for this topic — please check back in soon.

child sexual abuse material

Child sexual abuse material is any content that depicts sexual activity with an individual under the legal age of consent. It is also called child pornography, online child abuse material, or child exploitation material. The US Department of Justice uses the term child pornography in legal proceedings. Some activists recommend against this term, saying the word “pornography” can conflate it with adult sexual material rather than keeping the focus on the harm done to the child. Child sexual abuse material inherently involves the exploitation and traumatization of its participants, and consumers promote and fund crimes against children, so a sensitivity to the victims/survivors is paramount in news coverage.

Last updated 08/05/22

Mental health can be hard to talk about for people in their everyday lives, so it’s not surprising that reporting on the issue comes with its own challenges. Until relatively recently, in many circles, discussion of mental health issues was considered taboo, and terms that refer to clinical diagnoses were often used in flippant ways to describe perceptions of traits rather than actual medical conditions. Though we’ve come a long way, there’s plenty of evidence that stereotypes and myths related to mental health issues have stubbornly clung to the public consciousness. 

This section of the Language, Please style guidance helps journalists recognize and avoid those stereotypes and other common pitfalls in reporting and to understand key mental health subjects in a nuanced way.

This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.

How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms. 

Get in Touch

Language, Please is a living resource and will be updated regularly. Have a question, suggestion, or addition? We’d love to hear from you.

Find an Inclusivity Reader

Access our inclusivity reader directory here.