The new guidelines offer tips and advice for avoiding harmful language when writing about mental health
“I’ve endured so much stigma in the way people talk about eating disorders, including claims of being vain. Comments which have stuck to me like a leech. I experience immense feelings of guilt, fear, and anxiety. Despite this, I often hear the phrase ‘it’s just a phase’ related to my BDD. It’s not straightforward to just press the on/off button – the language used does not reflect the realities of life. It just makes me feel alone, isolated and misunderstood.” Sandeep, mental health campaigner
The mental health charity Mind has released a set of guidelines for the media that address how journalists should write about mental health.
Mind carried out a poll of nearly 8,000 people on LinkedIn and Instagram, and found that nearly three in five people regularly hear harmful mental health language in the media, while one in five people hear harmful language all the time.
The way we talk about mental health issues like OCD, suicide, and depression has a “huge impact” on people with mental health problems, the charity said. It added that harmful language could “increase feelings of isolation and at times prevent people with mental health problems from seeking support.”
The guidance includes tips such as “Think about the language you use” and “Take care when talking about suicide.” It says that it is important to “avoid mentioning specific suicide methods or locations” and adds: “Try not to speculate about why someone may have taken their own life. Suicide is complex and unlikely to be due to one single factor.” It advises people to remember that “resilience is complex,” noting: “Some people think resilience, or our ability to manage stress, is something we can all easily control. But this isn’t true. It’s important to acknowledge things that might make it harder to be resilient. For example, if someone’s experiencing stress or discrimination, or if they don’t have much support.”
Examples of language to avoid include terms such as “schizophrenic” or “depressive”. The guidance advises: “Lead with the person, not the mental health problem. Those of us with mental health problems are more than our diagnosis. We’re people, first and always.”
It also recommends avoiding the word “suffering,” saying: “Describing someone as suffering with a mental health problem can imply weakness. It’s important to ask people what language they’d prefer you to use.”
Slang terms such as “maniac”, “mad”, “nuts”, lunatic”, or “psycho” should all be avoided, the guidance adds: “Using lazy mental health labels trivialises what it’s like to have a mental health problem. It also adds to stigma.” Another recommendation relates to the word “psychosis,” which should only be used “when someone is experiencing an actual episode of psychosis.”
Other phrases journalists can use, the guidance says, include “experiencing or living with a mental health problem,” which is “less stigmatising than saying ‘suffering’.”
The guidance quotes Sandeep, a mental health campaigner in Essex, who has been living with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), anorexia and OCD since she was 25: “I’ve endured so much stigma in the way people talk about eating disorders, including claims of being vain. Comments which have stuck to me like a leech. I experience immense feelings of guilt, fear, and anxiety. Despite this, I often hear the phrase ‘it’s just a phase’ related to my BDD. It’s not straightforward to just press the on/off button – the language used does not reflect the realities of life. It just makes me feel alone, isolated and misunderstood.”
The actress and Mind ambassador Beverley Callard said: “What we are trying to do is stop people using words like ‘oh she’s a loony tune’ or ‘she’s crazy’ or ‘she’s a bit mad’, just because it goes against what we’re fighting against and what we’re trying to achieve.
“I personally experienced clinical depression a long time ago, and I always remember how someone said to me: ‘Because I’d had clinical depression, I would be flaky and unreliable’. So, we all have to really think about what we’re saying in terms of reducing mental health stigma.”
In recent years, charities have increasingly drawn attention to the ways in which certain terminology can stigmatise people with particular conditions, and organisations have begun to adopt policies that aim to change the language used when referring to these conditions. The NHS, for example, has guidance for health professionals about how to talk to, and about, people with diabetes about their condition.
We very much welcome Mind’s new guidelines on writing about mental health. All too often, journalists and others resort to terms that trivialise mental health problems, or imply that they can be overcome with resilience or effort of will. Terms such as “psychotic” and “schizophrenic” are frequently misused and there is still a tendency to refer to use labels such as “depressive” rather than saying that someone lives with, or experiences, depression. Thanks to the efforts of charities, there has been a move among health professionals to being more careful about language and terminology relating to both physical and mental health conditions, and we would like to see a similar awareness among newspapers and broadcasters. We hope that media organisations will incorporate Mind’s guidelines into their own style guides for journalists.