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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

mental health disorder

Mental health disorder refers to a collection of symptoms that cause a disturbance in one’s mental functioning, including cognition, behavior, and emotional regulation. Some prefer terms like “psychiatric condition” or “mental health issue” instead, as “disorder” can have stigmatizing implications.

mental illness

Mental illness is a phrase used in mental health research to measure prevalence and seriousness of disorders that interfere with daily functioning. The frame of illness can be helpful in reinforcing that clinical mental health conditions are health issues and not personal failings. But the term can also carry negative connotations, so context matters when deciding when and how to use it. “Mental health condition” is a more expansive term. 

neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)

A collection of drug withdrawal symptoms that occur after a child is born. It is caused by exposure to drugs in the womb. When researching or writing about NAS, keep an eye out for ableist rhetoric and racial biases.


Neurodivergent is an umbrella term to refer to neurological minorities, including people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Tourette’s syndrome, and tics. The opposite term is “neurotypical.” Equating neurotypicality to being “normal” or having a “healthy” brain can reinforce misleading assumptions and stigma about neurodivergence.


Neurodiversity refers to the presence of many different types of minds throughout the human race, all of which have valuable characteristics. The term aims to categorize autism, ADHD, and other developmental conditions as naturally occurring traits in the human population rather than pathologies to be “cured.” A group or population can be neurodiverse, but a single person cannot, and the term generally isn’t used in a person-first way (e.g., “a person with neurodiversity”). An individual could be referred to as a neurominority or neurologically marginalized, or described with their diagnosis; some also call themselves “neurodivergent.”

obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by persistent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive rituals to “neutralize” said thoughts (compulsions). Using OCD as a casual shorthand outside of the context of the actual disorder and its diagnosis can increase stigma around the condition, trivialize the experiences of people living with OCD, and discourage people from getting help.

opioid epidemic

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.


In the context of abuse, the term “perpetrator” refers to someone who misuses their power over another individual to hurt or control them. Some advocacy organizations urge the use of person-first language (e.g., person who abuses), as calling someone an “abuser” can conflate their identity with their behavior. Individuals can be both abuse perpetrators and victims at different points, so consider whether the phrasing could be read as assigning a seemingly permanent, binary role.


Psychedelics, or hallucinogens, are defined as a class of psychoactive substances that can alter mood, perception and cognition, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. The process of taking hallucinogens is referred to as tripping. Psychedelics can cause hallucinations as the name suggests, but also euphoria, relaxation, confusion, clumsiness, vomiting, and other effects. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.1 million people used hallucinogens in the past year. These drugs remain illegal at the federal level; careful coverage will take into account any potential risks to sources when reporting on the subject.

psychiatric medications

Psychiatric medications are prescribed to shift emotions and thought patterns by adjusting brain chemistry in people with mental health conditions. They are also called mental health medications or psychotropic medications. Clinicians will often combine these medications with psychotherapy and other treatments for maximum effectiveness in relieving symptoms including anxiety and depression. Common myths related to psychiatric medications include that they are a “cop-out” or short-term solution, that they dull one’s personality, or that they are no more effective than placebos. Citing statistics that put individual stories of medication use in context, and bringing in an expert for analysis, can go a long way to ensure thoughtful 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. 

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