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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

cannabis / marijuana

Marijuana or cannabis is a psychoactive drug derived from the cannabis plant. The two main compounds of the plant used commercially are THC (what is found in marijuana/cannabis and can have psychoactive effects when ingested) and CBD, which is non-psychoactive and has become a popular additive in food and drinks, bath products, and more. Marijuana may be the term most familiar to US audiences, but cannabis is also very common. Various organizations or news outlets opt for one term or the other, or use both interchangeably. Some critics of the term marijuana say it has a history rooted in demonizing Mexican immigrants. Some advocates prefer the term cannabis for emphasizing the medicinal qualities of the drug. There are also many more colloquial terms for the drug, such as pot, weed, ganja, etc., though not all may be familiar to audiences and may be less clear outside of direct quotes. When choosing terminology, it may be helpful for clarity to consider the wording used by your source materials (the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, generally uses “marijuana,” while members of the commercial industry may use the term cannabis) and to provide a brief definition of how the term is being used in context. Balanced coverage will take into account the racial disparities that exist in both marijuana-related arrest rates and opportunities to participate in the commercial cannabis market. The drug remains illegal at the federal level; careful coverage will take into account any potential risks to sources when reporting on the subject.

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.

climate grief

Climate grief refers to the grief stemming from loss or anticipated losses of ecosystems, species, and landscapes across the globe, due to the effects of environmental destruction and climate change. Anyone can experience climate grief, though some experts say Indigenous peoples may experience it more acutely. When reporting on climate change, accurately identifying even small signs of progress can ensure that your coverage does not unnecessarily stoke climate anxiety or grief.

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 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 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 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.

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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