1. Balance depictions of stigma
    1. Watch out for narratives that overemphasize stigma, judgment, or mistreatment toward people with mental health challenges, which can prevent viewers from speaking up if they are struggling.

Data suggests that people may perceive more stigma against mental illness than actually exists. Whether or not those fears are valid, fear of judgment can be a barrier to speaking up and getting help. While prejudice and stigma do exist, we don’t want to reinforce — or introduce — the idea that people who struggle with mental health will be judged, rejected, or mistreated.

When talking about stigma or discrimination, be careful not to exaggerate the frequency or severity of judgment or mistreatment: 

  • Use the growing body of data on people’s attitudes and beliefs, expert guidance, and stories from people with lived experience to accurately represent stigma in the context of your project. 
  • Show people overcoming stigma by being more informed, compassionate, and empathetic.

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  1. Challenge common misconceptions
    1. Be mindful of stereotypes when depicting mental health storylines and aim for authenticity over tropes.

When telling the story of someone living with a mental health condition — especially conditions that are frequently misunderstood, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia — it’s important to remember that individuals living with those conditions may already be struggling with discrimination or judgment. 

Stereotypes can perpetuate harmful stigma and misconceptions in several ways. They can:

  • Perpetuate the false notion that people with mental health conditions are frightening, unhinged, or dangerous when in reality, individuals with these conditions are not more likely to be violent toward others. 
  • Celebrate potentially harmful archetypes, like the perception that artists always struggle emotionally or participate in negative behaviors like substance misuse. 
  • Reinforce barriers to help-seeking like portraying Black women as always being strong or Asian American students as always able to push through the pressure of school or work. 
  • Focus too heavily on one type of person in the context of specific mental health challenges, like only showing self-injury storylines with young, white females, when we know this behavior is prevalent across all gender and cultural groups. 
  • Typecast people with serious mental health conditions as unable to live a fulfilling and productive life, when advances in treatment have allowed many individuals with these conditions to have successful careers, relationships, and families.

When depicting mental health challenges or themes, avoid leaning into stereotypes and aim for authenticity over tropes:

  • Push back against common associations between certain mental health issues and character traits. For example, the false notion mentioned above that all artists or creative people struggle emotionally or partake in harmful behaviors like substance misuse. Focusing on stories of musicians, actors, or other creative people who die by suicide can reinforce and glamorize this connection — when in reality, there are many examples of artists who haven’t faced these challenges or have reached their peak after seeking help or entering recovery. 
  • A common storytelling tool is to present stereotypes or myths and then debunk them through the narrative. But studies show that a certain percentage of people will retain the myth instead of the truth when it’s presented in this format, especially if the myth is presented in a convincing way. If you’re using this storytelling tactic, consider consulting with a mental health advisor to decrease the likelihood that your narrative unintentionally reinforces the myth.

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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.

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.

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.”


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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