Consider the Impact of Language

Top Storytelling Tips

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  1. Use supportive and accurate language
    1. Try to avoid defining people by their feelings or conditions (say person experiencing depression instead of depressed person); incorrect usage of medical terminology (like schizo, psycho, and bipolar); and talking about suicide in a stigmatizing way (use died by suicide instead of killed himself or committed suicide).

The language storytellers use to talk about mental health can have a powerful impact on how viewers perceive the topic and the likelihood they’ll speak up and seek help. The following language recommendations support positive and accurate conversations both on-screen and behind the camera.

Avoid language that makes mental health challenges part of someone’s identity.

Language that defines a person by their mental health struggle can create the false impression that someone’s mental health state is permanent and can’t be improved. In reality, much like physical health conditions, there are usually things people can do to feel better — including treatments that help people achieve a better quality of life. Try to use empowering language that describes a person’s struggle but preserves their agency to improve their mental health state.

In general, it’s good to follow the “people first” rule where we put a person before a condition, situation or feeling they’re experiencing. Those are all things they are going through or dealing with, not who they are as individuals.

CONSIDER USINGINSTEAD OF
He’s experiencing depression.He’s a depressed person.
She’s living with an anxiety disorder.   She has an anxiety disorder.
They were diagnosed with schizophrenia.They’re schizophrenic.
He’s managing a mental health condition. He’s mentally ill.
She’s dealing with social anxiety.She’s suffering with social anxiety.
He’s managing an eating disorder.  He’s battling an eating disorder. 
They’re working through PTSD.They’re a victim of PTSD. 

Avoid language that is shaming or stigmatizing

Some of the more concerning behaviors associated with mental health — like substance misuse, self-injury, and suicide — are misunderstood as “bad choices” or the fault of the person struggling. Avoid using language that places blame or judges people who are experiencing mental health challenges.

CONSIDER USINGINSTEAD OF
She’s misusing substances She’s an addict, druggie, or junkie. 
She’s living with substance use disorder. She’s addicted or abusing drugs. 
They had a setback in their recovery. They relapsed or fell off the wagon. 
He’s self-injuring, or He’s dealing with self-injury. He’s a cutter. 
She attempted suicide. She tried to kill herself or tried to commit suicide.
They survived a suicide attempt.They had a failed suicide attempt. 
He died by suicide.He committed suicide.
She lost her brother to suicide. Her brother killed himself. 

Avoid using language about mental health conditions in a casual way to describe the behavior of people who are not struggling with that condition

People living with mental health conditions — especially more serious conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — sometimes have to deal with both the challenges their conditions present, and other people’s misconceptions.

Avoid using language associated with these conditions as slang, insults, or inaccurate descriptors. For example, “My roommate is so OCD that I can’t even leave a dish in the sink for five minutes,” or “My coworker is completely schizo and changes his mind about everything, every day.”

DON’T USE: 

Schizo to describe someone who is “all over the place.”

OCD to describe someone who is extremely organized, particular, or likes cleanliness.

Manic to describe someone who is impulsive.

Psycho to describe someone who is angry or behaving erratically.Bipolar to describe someone who is indecisive or has shifts in mood.

 

Avoid language that has a history of being derogatory to people dealing with mental health issues

For example: crazy, nuts, disturbed, mental, lunatic, looney, insane, psycho, unhinged.

Consider using language that’s more accessible for viewers 

In a ViacomCBS & Well Being Trust survey, respondents had a more positive association with phrases like “mental health” and “mental wellbeing” compared to phrases like ”mental illness.”

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more in part 6