BuzzFeed's Style Guidelines For Writing About Mental Health
The words you use can end stigma instead of perpetuating it.
1. Use words that end stigma, not perpetuate it.
Words matter. Certain words carry a great deal of weight for particular groups, even when those terms aren't intended to be disparaging. But we have the power to change the conversation and reduce stigma by steering clear of derogatory language like nuts, lunatic, deranged, psycho, and crazy when referring to people.
These words and other phrases (elaborated below) reinforce stereotypes about mental illness and could discourage people from seeking treatment. And content creators should focus on individuals and how terminology can affect them personally.
2. Put people first.
Use person-first language (the person’s name or the terms person or people before a condition) to avoid phrasing that could be seen as defining someone by their illness: a person with schizophrenia rather than a schizophrenic person.
Subtle differences like this can influence both how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.
3. Avoid using diagnosable conditions in a nonclinical sense.
Casual conversation and jokes can trivialize real disorders: "The weather was bipolar"; "She was OCD about organizing her arts and crafts"; "I'd rather kill myself than listen to one more minute of this lecture"; "I’m going to have PTSD after watching this scary movie."
These expressions not only dilute the power of these words, but they could also discourage people who desperately need to be heard from vocalizing their despair.
Tip: Pairing "so" with a diagnosable disorder — "I'm so OCD about my bullet journal"; "My roommate is acting so bipolar this week" — should be a red flag that you should reword: "I'm obsessed with my bullet journal"; "My roommate is so moody this week."
4. Respect the difference between an emotion (sad) and a mental disorder (depression).
Are you really "depressed" because your favorite team didn't make it to the playoffs? No: You're disappointed, but it's a temporary feeling. Many people with depression can't identify a "reason" for the symptoms they are experiencing.
Did watching the close game give you an anxiety attack? You were probably nervous or anxious, but unlike someone with an anxiety disorder, your agitation didn't keep you from your normal routine.
5. Avoid euphemisms, be precise, and use value-neutral terminology.
Avoid phrases like suffer from (which denotes pity and can mischaracterize how someone is managing their illness) and battling (bellicose language creates a perception of "winners" versus "losers" and oversimplifies a person's experience — is someone not "fighting hard enough" if they don't get well?).
For example: "She has schizophrenia" (not "She suffers from schizophrenia"); "He is being treated for depression" (not "He is battling depression").
Avoid generalizations like "She is mentally ill." Mental illness is OK to use as a general term, but specific conditions should be used when possible ("She has bipolar disorder"). Do not use the term the mentally ill.
6. Be wary of conflating mental illness with violence or criminal activity.
Researchers have found that most violent crimes are wrongly linked to mental illness in news reporting. In fact, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, people with mental illnesses are 10 times more likely to be victims of crimes than the general population.
And if a mental illness isn't relevant to the story, don’t include it.
7. Do not equate being transgender with having a mental illness.
As the American Psychological Association points out, "Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling, which implies that identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder."
That said, anti-trans discrimination, hostility and intolerance, and assault may cause transgender people to experience anxiety, depression, or related disorders.
8. When reporting on suicide, avoid specifying the method or including details about how the person died.
Explicit descriptions can "increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals," according to Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, whose guidelines are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion.
Although BuzzFeed News never mentions the method in a headline or on social media, it will be noted in the running text when it is specifically relevant to the story — e.g., this story about Chris Cornell's autopsy results.
9. Never use the verb commit when referring to suicide.
Although "committed suicide" is a pervasive term, commit can carry a criminal or negative moral connotation. Instead, BuzzFeed uses direct phrasing — "She killed herself" — and, aside from direct quotations, avoids the euphemistic "She took her own life."
Never describe a suicide attempt as "unsuccessful."