Word choices matter when reporting on people with mental illnesses

By Sue Lockett John

Every week members of the WA State Coalition for Mental Health Reporting are struck by the number of news stories with casual generalizations that describe multi-faceted people in one-dimensional ways: “the bipolar did this,” the schizophrenic did that,” the mentally ill are whatever.” 

Many journalists seem surprised, if not offended, when coalition members ask them to rethink their word choices or use “people first” language when writing about people who may have been diagnosed with a form of mental illness at some point in their lives. It seems so picky, they say, when we ask them to mention the person first, then the diagnosis. It feels awkward, and seems wordy, they object. And besides, what does difference does it make?

It makes a lot of difference, says Melanie Green, Mental Health Recovery Coordinator for the Clark County Regional Support Network. Using people first language and avoiding stereotypes and clichés can have far-reaching consequences both for individuals with mental illnesses and for society as a whole.

Words are power, and for too long, the words to describe mental illness have been loaded with negativity and judgment, says Stephanie Lane, Director of the Office of Consumer Partnerships for the Mental Health Division of WA State’s Department of Social and Health Services.

For example, when diagnostic labels, like bi-polar disorder and schizophrenic, are used to describe the person, rather than the ailment, the individual’s identity gets lost. “Bi-polar is a tenth of who I am,” says Lane, in a phone interview from her Olympia office. “I‘m funny I’m smart, I work, I have family, friends. Don’t define me by my illness.”

Defining someone by an illness is not only incomplete and inaccurate, it also dredges up stigma and stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, isolation and reluctance to seek treatment. Language both reflects and shapes the way we think, and thus can either perpetuate stereotypes or lead the way to fresh approaches.

Again using herself as an example, Lane says, ‘Stephanie the bi-polar” evokes a series of sensationalized media images, especially for people who don’t have any relationship with someone who has the disease. On the other hand, saying, ‘”Stephanie, the manager of consumer partnerships, who has a diagnosis of bi-polar,” paints a very different picture. “It should come last. It shouldn’t come first,” she said.

People first language also offers a straightforward, understated alternative to clichés like “suffering from,” or “afflicted with,” which perpetuate misunderstanding and fears about being diagnosed with a mental illness.  With treatment and support, most people with mental illness diagnoses are managing their symptoms and leading ordinary, productive lives.

 “Don’t say I’m struggling or surviving if I’m doing fine,” says Lane. “I have an awesome life.  There are times when I struggle, but not now.”

Broad-brush terms like “the mentally ill” cause problems too, by lumping all kinds of people with all kinds of conditions into one impersonal mass. Seattle writer and speaker Naomi Stenberg says such terms “put us over on an ice floe” and create the mistaken impression that people with mental illnesses are “out there running wild and would be easily detected.” On the contrary, she says, “I could walk into a boardroom and, statistically, one out of four of the people there could have a mental illness, and maybe have had it for years and been managing it beautifully.”

Old writing habits die hard, especially without a clear understanding of the impact both on individuals and society as a whole. 

It may not have felt natural at first to use gender-neutral language, or to describe people with HIV-positive diagnoses as “living with AIDS” not “suffering” from it; to respect racial and ethnic group name preferences, or use “people first” language for people with visible disabilities. But as stylebooks and habits changed, they both reflected and aided more accurate and empowering attitudes toward many members of society.

It’s time to apply the same degree of accuracy and respect to people with mental illnesses.

For more information
See these online resources for more information on how to report accurately on people with mental illness and other physical differences.