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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

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.

sexual misconduct

There is no single official definition of sexual misconduct. While it can be helpful for talking about a wide range of behaviors, some advocates have criticized the term for being overly vague or minimizing. If discussing specific situations or accusations, consider what level of detail will provide necessary context without violating the privacy or well-being of those involved, and without using unnecessarily sensationalized or salacious language. 

social-emotional learning (SEL)

Social-emotional learning, or social and emotional learning, often shorthanded as SEL, refers to the learning of concepts like stress management, impulse control, problem-solving, and clear communication, to help understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. The concept of SEL has become part of larger controversies around what can or should be taught in schools, with critics arguing SEL is being used to “indoctrinate” students to progressive cultural values. This has led to initiatives in at least two dozen states attempting to restrict SEL. Helpful context would describe the potential effects of these proposed restrictions and how the concept of social-emotional learning has in some instances become divorced from the term itself as a buzzword stoking political divides. It may also be useful to ground coverage in the specific practices and activities being taught in the learning environment you’re reporting on, so the audience can base their understanding on the concrete experiences of students and teachers.

substance use

Substance use is consuming a drug or chemical that alters one’s physical, emotional, or cognitive state. Saying that a person “abuses drugs” can play into assumptions about the person and what they’re experiencing. Saying someone “misuses drugs” or “uses prescription drugs other than prescribed” is more specific and removes the value judgment from your reporting.

substance use disorder (SUD)

Substance use disorder is a diagnosis for problematic substance use. When discussing substance use in general, the term substance use disorder can be used. If discussing problematic use of a particular substance, mentioning the substance (e.g., opioid use disorder) is more precise.


Suicide is self-directed, intentional violence that results in death. Saying an individual “died by suicide” or “killed themself” is clear and accurate. Language like “committed suicide” can inadvertently paint the deceased as a criminal. Stories describing suicides, especially exact methods of suicide, can be triggering or influencing and in this sense cause real harm, as does speculating that someone died by suicide before the cause of death has been confirmed. In stories discussing suicide, including helpline numbers and links such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides immediate resources for anyone in need of support.

survivor (mental health and trauma)

Survivor is term of empowerment used by some people who have lived through trauma, abuse, or mistreatment. While some individuals may self-identify with this term, others may not. Taking into account the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience.

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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