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Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

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. 

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

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.

trigger

Trigger refers to a stimulus that leads to a strong reminder of a past trauma, such as a smell, sight, or sound. The word “triggered” is sometimes misused as a synonym for “offended” or “upset.” Using the term this way can diminish the very real pain that people with psychiatric conditions feel when their symptoms are set off.

victim (mental health and trauma)

The term victim is used to refer to a person who has experienced bullying, harassment, abuse, attacks, or aggression from another person or institution. 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.

withdrawal

Withdrawal refers to the physical, mental, and emotional effects of stopping substance use. It typically occurs after chronic usage at high doses. Casual terms like “dope sickness” or “going cold turkey” can minimize the distress of withdrawal.

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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