As writers and content creators – whose words can reach thousands of people – it’s our responsibility to avoid using harmful language, especially when it comes to mental health.
The Mental Health Foundation say that harmful language can be a barrier to people seeking help.
Sometimes it’s obvious when a word or phrase will cause offence, but sometimes it means educating ourselves about what is appropriate. This is especially important when it comes to writing about mental health. By using the wrong language, you risk causing offence, and trivialising issues but by using harmful language you can also create a barrier for people seeking help.
Perpetuating mental health stigma in the news
The news shapes our understanding of people we might not routinely interact with in our everyday lives. So when mental health conditions are portrayed in a stigmatising way, it can have a direct impact on people who are struggling with their own mental health.
However, the stigmatisation of mental illness is so intertwined with our media that researchers use newspaper articles as a proxy metric to measure society’s stigma towards different topics. Researchers found that when the media discusses mental health, it tends to focus on the individual rather than framing condition as a societal issue. Consequently, readers are more likely to blame an individual for their mental health.
When it comes to the news, we often see some of the most damaging themes and language used. For example, following a tragedy, reporters frame the perpetrator as a ‘crazed gunman’ or as ‘struggling with their mental health’ to serve as subtle reason for their crimes.
The word crazy should never be used to describe a person, as it is an ableist slur that stigmatises mental illness. This isn’t about your opinion or your intention; it’s about how your language makes marginalised people feel.
Words to scrub from your lexicon…
Here’s just a few words and phrases that you should avoid using:
- ‘Crazy’ and ‘insane’ – an outdated term that has been used to stigmatise people with mental health conditions for decades. Consider whether you could convey your point without using it. If you mean to say ‘frenzied’, then say that.
- ‘Schizo’ or ‘mental’ – Chances are you are using these words to mean something else entirely, so if you mean someone or something is ‘wild’ or ‘extreme’, say that. These words negate from the point you’re intending to make and normalize the harmful notion that mental health conditions and disabilities equate to insults.
- ‘Psychopathic’ – we don’t use psychopathic to describe people anymore. This word has the potential to seriously upset and offend people with a mental health condition, so it’s important to be respectful and choose a word not rooted in ableist oppression.
- ‘Lame’ and ‘dumb’ – Ableist language has a tendency of appearing in the slang we use, and experts have described the use of disability or mental health condition as a shorthand for something negative which fuels the larger systems of oppression.
- Do your research – the best approach is to read all you can about the right language to use, and then check with specific guidelines before creating content that specifically references a condition or diagnoses. This is because many mental health terms change over time. For example, ‘split/multiple personality disorder’ is a term that is no longer used. The correct term is ‘dissociative identity disorder’. Staying up to date constantly can be an unrealistic ask, but a quick Google search prior to publishing content can help you communicate effectively and inclusively.
- Use imagery thoughtfully to avoid perpetuating harmful beliefs – as part of Time to Change’s #GetThePicture campaign, the charity shared a variety of alternate images that can be used to depict people with mental health problems, because people dealing with their mental health don’t look unhappy 24/7.
- Shift your language to be person-centered – instead of referring to a person as an addict or a schizophrenic, use language like ‘a person living with addiction/schizophrenia’ and scrub words like crazy, insane and deranged from your vocabulary, and content you publish.
- Say what you mean – for instance, don’t describe someone who is organised as ‘OCD’, because being clean and tidy is not the same as living with obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Don’t say that someone committed suicide – use expressions like ‘took his/her own life’, ‘ended his/her own life’. The use of the word ‘committed’ originates when suicide was considered a crime and a sin, but it is neither.
- Signpost – if your content discusses mental health, always include links to organisations and resources for anyone reading who may be affected.
Misinformation on screen
Sadly, not all mental health conditions are treated with the same level of respect and care on screen. Conditions like depression and anxiety are beginning to be treated with empathy and understanding, while schizophrenia and personality disorders are usually only referenced in connection to violence, despite studies that prove these individuals are more likely to be a victim—than a perpetrator—of violence.
Even programmes created to address the topic of mental health still have the potential to be harmful to the communities they depict. From the glorification and romanticisation of suicide, as seen in Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why, to the depiction of a man with dissociative identity disorder as a violent kidnapper in the film Split, the depictions of particular conditions in these popular programmes reinforce harmful stereotypes. Film and television can overgeneralise or simplify complex conditions.
Perhaps most damaging of all, is when mental health conditions are portrayed as being untreatable or unrecoverable. In a 2012 paper, researchers analysed movies that had depictions of people with schizophrenia and found that 24% of the characters with schizophrenia took their own lives, which is a harmful exaggeration, because many people manage their condition throughout their lives with the right support.
- When creating content that may be triggering for someone with a mental health condition, consider using a trigger warning so people have a choice to stop reading or viewing. Consider the impact on your audience and seek out an expert opinion if you’re unsure whether something is harmful or not.
- Unless genuinely relevant to the story, avoid providing details of an individual’s mental health or disability without consulting them first. If you’re writing about a person’s story, then of course include any detail they feel comfortable sharing publicly, as this will help educate others and raise awareness. But if you’re writing about an individual who has committed a crime, for example, then their mental health condition is not relevant, their actions are.
Progress in the media
More and more, media organisations themselves are recognising the work that needs to be done, with outlets like Channel 4 signing the Time to Change pledge to commit to dealing with mental health in a supportive way, both on and off screen.
ITV have featured dramas that cover mental health, including Cold Feet, which won best drama at the 2017 Mind Media Awards. The depiction of the character Pete, who has depression, was written with warmth and compassion, to show viewers that mental health is not something to be feared or shunned, but something many of us face in our lives.
If you’re reading this and would like support for your mental health, you’re not alone. There are hotlines that offer free, confidential support 24/7, like MIND who can be reached by phoning: 0300 123 3393.Contact us