How we write about mental health matters. Words need to be chosen carefully not only to be respectful, inclusive and unbiased but also because they can help reduce the stigma around mental illness. The golden rules of how to write about mental health (which also apply to writing about disease and disability at large) include:
- reporting details of mental illness or disability only if relevant to the research,
- being precise and respectful,
- using careful and person-first language.
Read this post to understand how to write about mental health in keeping with these standards.
In October, we celebrate World Mental Health Day, which strives to raise awareness of mental health issues worldwide and mobilise efforts to support mental health. It coincided with my copyediting of an academic study of perinatal mental health. It gave me a chance for a closer look at the language of the academic medical or, more broadly, scientific publications that pertain to mental health. As a result, I am sharing my notes on writing about mental health, which follow my previous posts about using bias-free language in scientific writing and choosing Plain Language to minimise anxiety and stress of communication in professional settings.
Do not use derogatory language.
Certain words and phrases can reinforce stereotypes and mental health illness and discourage public discussion and even people from seeking treatment. To write about mental health, do not use words such as ‘nuts,’ ‘lunatic,’ ‘deranged, ‘psycho’ and ‘crazy’ when referring to people. Similarly, discuss a ‘substance use disorder,’ not ‘substance abuse.’
Avoid diagnosable conditions in a non-clinical context.
‘I’m going to kill myself if I must listen to him anymore.’
‘The weather’s bipolar today.’
‘He is so OCD about his gadgets.’
These causal remarks, still used to describe everyday behaviours, trivialise mental health disorders and should be eliminated from our vocabulary.
Differentiate an emotion and a mental disorder.
‘I’m so depressed about my test results.’ No — you feel ‘sad’ or ‘disappointed.’ While these are valid emotions, they are temporary, non-clinical states and should be described accurately.
Use value-neutral and accurate language.
Terms like ‘suffering from depression’ victimise individuals living with depression. ‘Battling bipolar disorder’ may imply the winning/losing dichotomy and suggest those not recovering or improving are on the ‘losing’ side or do not ‘fight hard enough.’ In any case, such language is inaccurate and oversimplifies the experience of living with mental health illness.
When writing about suicide, I appreciate the points made by Proofed: the common phrase ‘commit suicide’ implies a crime and a ‘failed suicide’ implies dying by suicide is a success rather than a tragedy. Instead, ‘died by suicide’ and ‘attempted suicide’ are neutral, non-judgemental alternatives.
Include links to mental health resources.
It is not prevalent in academic or scientific writing (as in news pieces, blog posts or general online content), but when you write about mental health, it is a good practice to include pointers to mental health resources. For example, have a list of national mental health organisations such as these:
- a list of the mental health services provided by the UK’s NHS,
- National Institute of Mental Health’s list of mental health organisations in the US.
How we write about mental health is powerful and can contribute to reducing the stigma of people living with mental health conditions. Thus, we must do it right: using precise and respectful language focusing on people. If you write about mental health, contact me for a free sample edit to ensure your text is written in a language that does not perpetuate the stigma (and remember to use my early bird discount).