The language around mental health – like gender, race and sexuality – needs to be reconsidered


A reassessment of the language has taken place in newsrooms across the country over the past few years – and rightly continues. While consideration of race, gender and sexuality has changed what is covered and how, the discussion around the language and use of terminology related to mental health seems to be lagging behind.

Even though a litany of stories about work-life balance and why to stop doomscrolling have proliferated during the pandemic, the language used in hard news, reporting, and culture at large really hasn’t changed.

The brother-in-law of a Boulder, Colorado mass shooting suspect was quoted in a May article History of the New York Post saying, “We just don’t know what made him so mad. I wish we knew”; Outgoing Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass recently said that “the wokists have gone crazyafter the Oprah-Meghan Markle interview; and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) referred to “retarded childrenwhile discussing a housing initiative.

Breakthroughs have been made as ‘person-centred language’, in which the individual focuses on the individual before discussing a disability, has gained ground. But the mislabeling, stigma, and trivialization around mental health language can touch nearly every facet of American life.

“Disability does not discriminate. Anyone can develop a disability or have a disability,” said Naveed Saleh, a science writer and author with a medical background who contributes to Psychology Today, among others. “So I think it’s an issue that concerns all of us. But on the other hand, it’s also a question that people are probably the most flippant about when it comes to language.

Vernacular speech – as prominent as it may be in the realms of essays, literature and ordinary everyday conversation – and the occasional use of words like “crazy” could have an insidious effect on people’s perceptions. struggling with mental health issues. It’s a kind of trivialization.

“What it does is get the public used to thinking that people with mental illness, their issues or their experiences aren’t as important or serious as they are, because they’ve been exposed to the use inappropriate use of mental illness terms and lost their sensitivity and relevance to the issue,” Saleh said. “I think the greatest harm would be if someone called someone who (is suspected of) a crime “crazy” or “mad” without knowing that diagnosis. This is a greater detriment, because it really makes people believe that people with mental illness are criminals, and they really are not. people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than criminals themselves.

Kaitlyn Jakola, editor of the nonprofit digital media outlet The Trace, which covers gun violence in the United States, has a background in conscious editing. While copy editing has been and always will be hyper-focused on language detail, recognizing and engaging with myriad linguistic shifts is at the forefront of the approach.

“There’s an economy of words that’s valued in packaging and in headlines, and that’s where people fall back on words like ‘crazy.’ … I’ve probably seen it in political stories more than anything else,” Jakola said. “In recent years in American politics, there are so many outrageous and extreme things. And I can feel the fatigue of, ‘How do we describe this?’ On the other hand, I also think there is a sensibility among traditional print media. They were accused for so long of not being clear about what was going on that there may have been an overcorrection. … It’s not the right solution to this problem, but I can see some kind of logic, in part, of how we got here.

Jakola cites a variety of resources, including the BuzzFeed Style Guide, which is available online, for editors and newsroom managers interested in parsing language like this. There is also the AMA Style Manualfirst published by the American Medical Association in 1962, and the American Psychological Association maintains a guide as well as.

the Conscious style guidea website and suite of resources curated by Karen Yin since 2015, seeks to showcase stories related to reflective language use and hosts guides that encompass everything from “Ability + Disability” to “Socio-Economic Status” .

The attention to this type of language, even though the discussion around mental health has not advanced in the same way as other topics in American life, could be seen as part of an overall cultural shift. .

“For so long, we’ve taught journalism as a set of rules, and I think this generation demands a lot that we ask ourselves who those rules are for,” said Patti Wolter, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. University and member. of the Knight Foundation Science Journalism Project.

“Terms are most damaging when applied to people in a pejorative way, without understanding what a person may or may not be facing and assuming a negative connotation,” she said.

Wolter, whose career spanned work in the magazine industry and in academia, set a hopeful tone for the future.

“As a teacher, I want my students to be the ones developing style guides (about this) in their workplace – or to be part of the voices in their workplace promoting this kind of thinking and writing,” she said. “My job is to train the next generation to think that way.”

Improved training for journalism students around language like this and other facets of rapidly changing culture has been suggested as a means of influencing change. But in addition to fostering academic discussion of the language, Jakola, the editor of The Trace, offered a simple solution: create and apply style guides.

“I approached it through the newsroom policy. And in every newsroom I’ve been to, I’ve been like, ‘Hey, we have to have a policy on what language we’re going to use,’ she said. “At the end of the day, (in) my experience as a reviewer, people just want to be told what to do. And 99.9% of journalists aren’t going to argue with you about whether they can use (a) word, unless they’re picky or grumpy…. We don’t have to talk about it, we’ll just do it and make it normal.

As novel as the changes that have traversed newsrooms over the past few years may seem to some journalists, editors and newsroom managers, there is a growing demand to interrogate ideas about health-related language. mental – as well as race, gender and sexuality.

“This is not a new conversation for people who think deeply about words. This may be a new conversation for the rest of journalism,” Jakola said. “Maybe there is an argument to argue that this progress would have happened much sooner (if) we hadn’t fired all the copy editors.”


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