By On June 17th, 2013

The AP Changes How We Talk About Mental Health

As a writer and avid media critic, I am always keenly aware how word choice can affect our perception of an issue. While some argue against the constant revisions of our language and media to being “overly politically-correct,” our rhetoric actually has a huge impact on our understandings of topics and the emotions we develop towards those issues.

I am also someone working with mental health issues and interested in the social stigma that accompanies them, so a new entry to the Associated Press Stylebook governing how to describe and address mental illness was music to my ears.

The AP Stylebook is the definitive guide to language used in American journalism. Not only does the Associated Press follow these rules, but they are also adapted by most major media outlets as well as numerous smaller news sources. It directs the discourse through restrictions on language. For this reason, it is important when the AP Stylebook adds direction on how and when to address mental health.

The new entry specifically mandates that journalists “avoid unsubstantiated statements by witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness. A first responder often is quoted as saying, without direct knowledge, that a crime was committed by a person with a ‘history of mental illness.’ Such comments should always be attributed to someone who has knowledge of the person’s history and can authoritatively speak to its relevance to the incident.”

Not only will this allow us to put more time and research into unsubstantiated statements in the midst of a tragedy, it is a massive step towards a mental health rhetoric that treats sufferers with dignity and respect, as well as accuracy. As Amy Simpson points out, irresponsible journalism is largely responsible for the common myths and misconceptions held about mental illness sufferers, specifically the notion that people with mental illness are more prone to violence and could be considered dangerous to the general populace.

This has been proven time and time again to be untrue. The proven best predicting factor of violence is by far substance abuse, but mental illness has no significant causation to violence. This belief is so widespread, even the U.S. Surgeon General’s office has released a statement explaining, “There is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder…the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”

The new AP guidelines also stipulate that journalists, “Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.”

It is not unheard of for journalists to use those common derogatory terms without realizing they are akin to using a slur towards any other group of people and contributing to the negative depiction of mental health issues. When more than one in five people is believed to be dealing with a mental health issue at any given time, using language such as “nuts” or “crazy” when discussing someone with a mental health issue is not just irresponsible, it is hurting our general public health and happiness by shaming those who are struggling.

It’s about time we’ve started to change the way we talk.

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