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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

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

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 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.


Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes the victim doubt their perception of reality. The term is often used in coverage of abusive relationships and in the context of politicians making misleading statements. The rise in popular use of the term has caused some confusion about its precise definition. For example, unlike other forms of manipulation, gaslighting entails an intent to create confusion and self-doubt. For precision, it’s helpful to consider what makes gaslighting a distinct phenomenon when you decide whether the term applies to your coverage.


Harassment is hurtful speech or behavior, often intended to frighten, anger, or humiliate a person. It is typically rooted in bias against a marginalized group. It can involve offensive jokes, name-calling, insults, unwanted contact, provocative pictures, threats, and other hostile actions. Legal definitions for types of harassment can vary by state and don’t always match its use in everyday conversation (for example, “That person at the coffee shop was harassing me”). It’s important for media coverage to be clear and specific about whether instances of harassment meet legal criteria. For cases involving litigation, directly quoting court documents can help establish details of a given case even when facts are disputed and outcomes are pending.

holistic medicine

Holistic medicine is a treatment philosophy that addresses all parts of a person: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It is not interchangeable with complementary or alternative medicine. Holistic medicine can certainly include complementary treatments like meditation or herbal supplements. However, holistic medicine is an approach to healing, not a specific method of treatment in itself.

illness anxiety disorder

Illness anxiety is characterized by severe, persistent worry over developing a health condition. The term “hypochondria” might be more familiar, but that term is outdated and can be stigmatizing. Keep in mind that racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and sizeism can make it more likely for medical professionals to dismiss someone’s health concerns as health anxiety.

insanity defense

Insanity is a legal status in which a person’s psychiatric condition precludes them from being held responsible for their actions. Insanity is a legal status, not a clinical one, meaning someone cannot be diagnosed with insanity, but they can enter an insanity defense in court. Being mindful of which situation you’re reporting on when making language choices is important for accuracy.

intimate partner violence

Abuse that takes place between people who are romantically involved. When reporting on intimate partner violence as a phenomenon, gender-neutral language reinforces that it’s a form of harm that affects people of all genders.

Me Too / #MeToo

Me Too/#MeToo is used to describe the social movement against sexual violence. The term is generally used with the hashtag when referring to relevant social media activities and without it when referring to the larger movement or specific allegations. While it can be commonplace in everyday conversation for people to use the term as a verb or in passive voice (e.g. “Person X was MeToo’ed,” “Person Y Shelly MeToo’ed Mr./Mrs. Person X”), this kind of phrasing leaves out context and specifics. The passive construction can also be read as positioning the abuser as the victim.

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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