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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

rape culture

Rape culture is based on enduring gender inequities that normalizes and justifies sexual violence. Manifestations of rape culture in media coverage can involve, for instance, describing what a rape victim wore, using the term “sex” to describe a rape or sexual assault (which implies consent), and including stereotypes of rape victims and survivors in general. 


Recovery refers to a prolonged period in which a person experiences few to no symptoms. It can be used in both a mental health and substance use context. Phrasing such as “a person who previously used drugs” is more humanizing and specific than terms that appear to sum up a person’s identity and connote judgment, such as “reformed addict.” In the context of a mental health condition, the term “recovery” can imply it is a linear process, which can be misleading and obscure that many mental health conditions are chronic.


Recurrence refers to the return of a condition after a period without symptoms. When describing recurrences, language like “falling off the wagon” or “relapse” can inadvertently assign blame or weakness to the person experiencing a return of their addiction. Describing a “recurrence,” or saying someone has “resumed substance use,” acknowledges addiction as a disease and not a moral failing.


Relapse refers to the return of a condition after a symptom-free period. The term “relapse” is used in the context of both mental health diagnoses and substance use disorders, though using the term to describe the latter can imply a moral failure. Reserving the term for when someone uses it to describe their own experience helps avoid stigmatizing an individual.


Remission refers to a state in which symptoms have disappeared or become negligible and can refer to mental health, physical health, or substance use. “Remission” and “recovery” are often used interchangeably.


When a person intentionally harms themself, often to cope with distressing situations or overwhelming emotions. Generally when discussing self-harm, person-first language (e.g., “person who cuts themself” rather than “cutter” or “self-harmer”) frames the phenomenon as something a person is doing versus an identity that defines who they are. Terms like “self-abuse” or “self-violence” can stigmatize the person and make it sound like they are committing a crime.

sexual abuse

Sexual abuse refers to nonconsensual sexual activity that often involves force, threats, or coercion. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with sexual assault. In the context of abuse of a child by an adult, the term “sexual abuse” is more accurate than “child molestation,” which can give readers the false impression that abuse only counts if touching is involved.

sexual assault

The US Department of Justice defines “sexual assault” as nonconsensual sexual behavior that is against the law. It can include rape, attempted rape, and unwanted sexual contact. The term “sexual assault” can be used when discussing the issue generally, but when possible, specifying the allegations or actions involved can provide vital context and clarify whether you are reporting on allegations of illegal activity. People often define different types of sexual misconduct in different ways, and being specific and using the terms used by the victim or survivor will paint the clearest picture of the conduct they are reporting.

sexual assault forensic exam

A sexual assault forensic exam is the collection of DNA for the purposes of identifying a perpetrator of sexual assault. The term “sexual assault evidence kit” is more specific and accurate than “rape kit,” terminology that can be considered overly casual and create a misleading picture of how the DNA is collected.

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment refers to unwanted sexual behavior, including sexual violence, as well as things like catcalling, sexual comments, jokes, and innuendos, touching, “compliments,” or gifting, etc. Though sexual harassment is a legal term, many people use it to describe their own experiences without regard to the exact legal definition. When reporting on people’s accounts of experiencing harassment, it is helpful to offer specific descriptions, with attribution, of the behavior they say they experienced.

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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