How to write about mental health?

In scientific publications, write about mental health in an academic or scientific setting with precision and objectivity, utilising evidence-based research and avoiding stigmatising language. Incorporate a comprehensive review of relevant literature and emphasise the importance of promoting understanding, empathy and evidence-based interventions in the field of mental health.

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 to take a closer look at the language of 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 in communication in professional settings.

Word Mental Health Day celebration.Source: who.int

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.

Proofed advises that the common phrase ‘commit suicide’ implies a crime. Likewise, 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.

Use person-first language

Using person-first language is crucial when writing about mental health. It puts the person before the mental health condition. Furthermore, it emphasises their humanity and individuality rather than labelling them solely by their diagnosis. Person-first language respects the person’s dignity and rights while reducing the stigma associated with mental health conditions. 

For example, instead of saying ‘mentally ill person,’ say ‘person living with a mental health condition.’ Similarly, use ‘person who has schizophrenia’ instead of ‘schizophrenic.’ 

Include links to mental health resources

When you write about mental health, it is a good practice to include pointers to mental health resources. It is still less prevalent in academic writing than in news, blogs and other online content. For instance, provide links to resources, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, authoritative books and reports from mental health organisations. In addition, citing evidence-based guidelines from professional associations can enhance the credibility and reliability of your research.

Mental health organisations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): The CDC provides extensive resources on mental health, offering data, statistics and reports on various mental health conditions. Their publications often include information on prevalence, risk factors, and preventive strategies.

National Health Service (NHS): In the UK, the NHS publishes a wealth of information on mental health, ranging from treatment guidelines to patient resources. Their Mental Health pages offer a comprehensive overview of mental health conditions, treatments and support services.

World Health Organization (WHO): The WHO produces global mental health reports, guidelines and research on various mental health issues. Their publications contribute to a broader understanding of the global impact of mental health conditions and inform evidence-based interventions.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIH): The NIH is a leading US mental health research agency that conducts and supports research on various mental health disorders. Their reports and publications provide valuable insights into the latest advancements in mental health research and treatment approaches.

Professional mental health associations

American Psychiatric Association (APA): The APA develops guidelines for the assessment and treatment of various mental health disorders. These guidelines offer evidence-based recommendations for clinicians and researchers, helping to standardise best practices in the field.

Royal College of Psychiatrists: This UK-based professional organisation publishes clinical guidelines and recommendations for assessing and treating mental health disorders. Their guidelines are widely respected and utilised in the field of psychiatry.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI is a prominent advocacy group in the US offering resources for individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI’s publications include informational guides, research summaries, and policy briefs. These resources provide a valuable perspective on the lived experiences of people with mental health conditions. In addition, they help advocate for mental health awareness and policy changes.

Work with a professional editor

Working with a professional editor is essential when writing about mental health. A professional editor can help ensure that the language used in the text is precise, objective and respectful and does not stigmatises people living with mental health conditions. For instance, an editor can help identify language that may be derogatory or insensitive and suggest more appropriate alternatives. Professional editors are trained to review and revise texts in a manner that promotes understanding and empathy, ensuring that the text is inclusive and unbiased. They can also help ensure that the text is accurate, evidence-based and incorporates a comprehensive review of relevant literature. In particular, line editing can help ensure that a text about mental health is bias-free and precise.

Line editing involves reviewing the text line-by-line to improve its clarity, flow and effectiveness. A professional editor can help ensure the language is precise, and the message is communicated effectively. They can also help identify any instances of bias or stereotypes that may have crept into the text and suggest alternative language that is more inclusive and sensitive. 

Conclusion

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. I am an experienced editor, working with non-fiction, academic and business books. 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).

If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on MastodonTwitter and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.

Photo of author

Magda

I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).