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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

collective trauma

Collective trauma refers to society’s interpretation of and reaction to a calamity that affects an entire community. Commonly used examples of events that caused collective trauma include the Great Depression, 9/11, the enslavement of Black people, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Exploration of the ways collective trauma can manifest in individuals and communities adds essential context to news coverage.

complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicine is a form of treatment that is not part of mainstream medical care. That said, making blanket statements about CAM being “pseudoscience” can create a false dichotomy, with modern, Western, “evidence-based” medicine on one side and traditional, Eastern, “alternative” medicine on the other.

consent

Consent is a mutual limited agreement between two or more people of the age of legal majority. It can be revoked at any time, and it refers to the explicit permission for a given person to take an action. Consent can refer to sexual acts and, in the context of journalism, to the act of contacting someone, using someone’s name, or otherwise disclosing information about them, either to another party or in a published piece of media. It’s important for journalists to ensure informed consent is obtained from sources, and for news coverage to make clear when consent was not obtained or when a situation makes it impossible for consent to be given. Being precise with language (e.g., referring to nonconsensual sex as rape rather than as sex) is also important for clarity and accuracy.

content, advisory, and trigger warnings

Content, advisory, and trigger warnings are notices that a piece of content may contain material that people find offensive, graphic, or inappropriate for certain audiences, and/or that may set off mental health symptoms. It’s helpful to be as specific as possible about what content relates to a warning. For example, telling readers a piece contains a transphobic slur is more informative than “slur” alone.

cure (mental health)

A condition for which there is a “cure” is no longer present in an individual’s life. Claims that a certain treatment method can cure psychiatric disorders or addiction can give people unrealistic expectations of treatment or convince them that they no longer need to take necessary medication. Using a frame of curing can be especially misleading and ableist with respect to developmental disorders or disabilities.

dependence

Dependence refers to physiological reliance on a drug or substance for continued functioning. Dependence is not the same thing as addiction or tolerance, nor is it a measure of a person’s willpower or character. Being specific about the degree of reliance and avoiding language that may blame or stigmatize an individual for dependence on a substance helps ensure accurate coverage.

depression

Depression is a mood disorder causing persistent negative affect. It cannot be overcome through willpower or positive thinking. Using the term casually or colloquially in your reporting can trivialize the experience of living with depression as a clinical condition. While depression is a serious mental and public health issue, reporting on effective treatment and stories of recovery is also key to comprehensive coverage. Using specifics and person-first language (for example, “X lives with depression,” “experiences depression,” “is being treated for depression”) frames the condition as just one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them.

domestic violence

Domestic violence refers to abuse that takes place among people in a household or family unit. Physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse are all types of domestic violence. Domestic violence can overlap with other types of harm, such as child neglect or elder abuse. A term like “battered women’s shelters” can be upsetting for women who have undergone physical abuse, and it may deter those who have undergone other kinds of abuse (sexual, financial, etc.) from seeking help. If relevant to your content, it may be helpful to include helpline numbers or links to resources (such as thehotline.org).

fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a collection of conditions caused by prenatal alcohol use. Using the specific phrase instead of a stigmatizing term like “birth defect” is both more precise and accurate. Describing children with FASDs as being “unfairly punished” or “paying the price” for parents’ behavior depicts this health issue as a sign of moral transgression. This kind of framing risks burdening and stigmatizing families affected by the disorder, obscuring its root causes, and minimizing the possibility that people with these conditions can experience full and rewarding lives.

functioning

Functioning refers to a person’s ability to engage in activities of daily living (ADL), such as maintaining personal hygiene, shopping for food, managing finances, and developing social relationships with other people. Using specifics and person-first language when describing functionality is a good way to frame challenges in these areas as just one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them.

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. 

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