When writing about mental health, the words we use and the way we frame our ideas can have unintended consequences or reinforce negative stereotypes. Today is World Mental Health Day, though, so let’s look at seven tips for writing about mental health responsibly. These include:
Use person-first language to avoid defining someone by their illness.
Avoid words that stigmatize mental health issues.
Use neutral language rather than words like “suffering” or “battling.”
Don’t use real disorders to describe everyday behaviors.
Don’t equate having a mental illness with having a bad character.
Take care to write about suicide with sensitivity.
Include helpful links to mental health issues in your writing.
For more on how to put the tips above into action, read our guide below.
1. Use Person-First Language
Person-first language is about not defining people in terms of a condition or disorder they happen to have. Instead, the focus is on them as a person first. For instance, if we use “schizophrenic” as an adjective, we end up defining the person we describe in terms of a disorder:
A schizophrenic person.✘
Using person-first language, we would rephrase this to:
A person with schizophrenia.✔︎
A subtle rephrasing like this can help change people’s perceptions. As such, person-first language is a good default when writing about mental health.
There is one big exception to this, though: if you’re writing about a specific person, you should use their preferred terminology.
For instance, if someone describes themselves as a “schizophrenic person,” or you ask and they say they prefer this phrasing, then it is typically best to follow their example if you are referring to them in a document.
2. Avoid Words That Stigmatize Mental Health
People often use terms associated with mental health as insults (e.g., nuts, psycho, crazy). But these terms stigmatize real mental health issues, which could put people off seeking treatment. And there are almost always better ways to express the same ideas. For instance:
Emma is crazy if she thinks this will work!✘
Emma is kidding herself if she thinks this will work.✔︎
Frank can be a bit of a psycho sometimes.✘
Frank gets really angry sometimes.✔︎
Likewise, never use these stigmatizing terms to describe actual mental health issues. Nor should you refer to specific conditions as “mental illness” in general, such as saying “He’s mentally ill.” Whenever possible, be precise.
When writing about mental health, avoid framing it in terms of things like “suffering” (which suggests pity and passivity) or “battling” (which implies someone has “lost” if they do not recover). Instead, use neutral language:
Jane suffers from an anxiety disorder. ✘
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Jane has an anxiety disorder.✔︎
Peter is battling depression.✘
Peter has been diagnosed with depression. ✔︎
Similarly, look out for words associated with victimhood and affliction.
4. Don’t Trivialize Real Disorders
Using mental health conditions to refer to everyday behaviors or personality traits can trivialize the actual disorders. A common example is “OCD,” which people often use to mean “fussy” or “tidy.” But real obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a seriously debilitating condition.
Similarly, try to respect the difference between an emotion and a mental health issue. For instance, we all feel sad sometimes. That’s part of being human. But depression is a serious condition, and using “depressed” to refer to low mood in general can undermine this seriousness.
5. Mental Illnesses ≠ Evil
Popular culture often equates mental illness with evil or bad behavior.
For instance, in the 2002 Spider-Man film, Norman Osborn goes “insane” and becomes the Green Goblin, a violent supervillain depicted as one half of a split personality. Thus, while the film is not about mental health, it uses ideas and images associated with mental illness to imply villainy.
More harmfully still, many news reports refer to mental illnesses when someone has committed a crime, depicting people with mental health issues as dangerous or unpredictable. But, in reality, people with mental illnesses account for a tiny minority of violent offenders.
This isn’t to say that you can’t write a story about how untreated mental health problems led someone to be marginalized and fall into a life of crime (as long as you do it sensitively). But if a character is violent just because they are “crazy,” you might want to develop their motivations a little.
6. Take Care When Writing About Suicide
When writing about suicide, try to avoid stigma and focus on suicide prevention. You can do this by using neutral, factual, respectful language.
One major issue is the phrase “committed suicide,” since “committed” implies a sin or a crime. Similarly, “failed suicide” implies that dying by suicide is a success rather than a tragedy. Instead, use neutral, non-judgmental terms like “die by suicide” and “attempted suicide” in these contexts.
In addition, be careful about the information you include:
Avoid discussing methods and locations in detail, as these can influence vulnerable people to take their own lives in a similar way.
Be respectful if interviewing loved ones and friends of those who have died by suicide. Avoid casting blame by asking “Why didn’t you do something?,” “Didn’t you know he was mentally ill?,” or similar.
Provide suicide statistics to raise awareness of the scope of the issue, but avoid words that sensationalize the figures (e.g., skyrocketing or spiraling). Make sure to quote statistics from a credible source.
Where possible, include helpful information (e.g., a suicide helpline) so vulnerable people who need support can access it.
These might seem like small things, but they could save someone’s life.
7. Include Links to Mental Health Resources
There are many mental health resources available online. For example:
The NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses page, which lists mental health support organizations in the USA and offers advice on how to find care.
There are also plenty of sites that focus on specific issues. As such, try to include links to trustworthy resources in your writing. That, way, readers will have a quick and simple way of learning more or seeking help if required.