Reporting on Mental Illness


See also: AP Stylebook
on Mental Illness

Mental Health Terminology:  Words Matter

“When a stigmatized group of people such as those with mental  illnesses, is struggling for increased understanding and acceptance, attention to the language used in talking and writing about them is particularly important.”[i]

The general rule is to use person-first language. The basic concept behind person-first language is that the mental health condition (or physical or other condition) is only one aspect of who the person is, not the defining characteristic.

Preferred language                                         Instead of

She is a person who receives help/treatment for mental health or substance use problem or a psychiatric disability

She is a patient

He is a person with a disability

He is disabled/handicapped

She is a child without disabilities

She is normal

He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder

He is living with bipolar disorder

He is (a) bipolar

She has a mental health problem or challenge

She is a person with lived experience of a mental health condition

She is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/ psycho/insane/lunatic

He has a brain injury

He is brain damaged

He experiences symptoms of psychosis/He hears voices

He is psychotic

She has an intellectual disability

She is mentally retarded

He has autism

He is autistic

Is receiving mental health services

Mental health patient/case

Attempted suicide
Died by suicide

Unsuccessful suicide
Committed suicide

A student receiving special education services

Special education student

Person with substance use disorder
Person experiencing alcohol/drug problem

Addict, abuser, junkie

Experiencing, or being treated for, or has a diagnosis of, or a history of, mental illness

Suffering with, or a victim of, a mental illness

Key Points about Reporting on People
 with Mental Illness

  • Most people with mental illness are able to recover with treatment and support.
  • People with mental illness are not naturally violent, unable to work, or unable to get well. 
  • “Mental illness” covers a broad range of conditions and symptoms. Individuals’ experiences and the effects on their lives can be very different
  • Terms like “suffering from” or “afflicted with” can help to reinforce misunderstandings and fears about mental illness.

While many are opposed to any use of terms such as “crazy” or “psycho,” NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) states, “We do not protest the usage of single words like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “loony” unless they refer directly to individuals struggling with mental illnesses or to the illness itself.”

Research:  Labels can Alter Attitudes

Researchers found that health professionals’ attitudes were different when they were presented information on a hypothetical patient described as either a “substance abuser” or “having a substance abuse disorder.”  Respondents were more likely to have a punitive attitude and to agree with statements implying the patient was more to blame if he was described as and ‘substance abuser’ rather than a person with a disorder.[ii]

Terminology Preferred by People with Mental Illness

In a 2007 study asking individual receiving services for mental illness their preferred terms describing their status:

  • Client – 39%
  • Patient – 22%
  • Consumer – 16%
  • Survivor – 11%
  • Other – 11%
  • Ex-patient – 1%

The study authors concluded that given the varied response and lack of consensus, that clinicians, policy-makers and others should be sensitive to individuals’ references.[iii]

Terminology in DSM-5

The term “abuse” which is used in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) is expected to be removed in the forthcoming DSM-5 (e.g., Alcohol Use Disorder replacing Alcohol Abuse and Dependence and Opioid Use Disorder replacing Opioid Abuse and Dependence).


University of Kansas: Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities
Disability Rights California:  People First Language in Mental Health

NAMI:  Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma

[i] Wahl, O.F. 1998. People first language matters. The Bell (newsletter of Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association).

[iii] Covell NH, McCorkle BH, Weissman EM, et al. 2007.  What’s in a name? Terms preferred by service recipients. Adm Policy Ment Health. 34(5):443-7.