June 24, 2021

A reassessment of language has taken place in newsrooms across the country over the past several years — and rightfully continues. While a reckoning over race, gender and sexuality has changed what’s covered and how, the discussion around the language and use of terminology related to mental health appears to be lagging.

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

The brother-in-law of a Boulder, Colorado, mass-shooting suspect was quoted in a May New York Post story as saying, “We just don’t know what made him go so crazy. I wish we knew”; outgoing Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass recently said that “wokists went bonkers” after the Oprah-Meghan Markle interview; and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) referred to “retarded children” while discussing a housing initiative.

In-roads have been made as “person-first language,” in which the individual is focused upon before a disability is discussed, has gained traction. But the mislabeling, stigmatization and trivialization around mental health language can touch almost any facet of American life.

“Disability doesn’t discriminate. Anybody 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 other outlets. “So, I think that this is an issue that affects us all. But on the other hand, it’s also an issue that people are probably most flippant about when it comes to language.”

Vernacular speech — as important as it might be in the realms of essay, literature and plain, daily conversation — and the casual use of words like “nuts” might have an insidious effect on the perception of people dealing with mental health issues. It’s a kind of trivialization.

“What it does is habituates the public into thinking that people with mental illness, their problems or experiences aren’t as important or severe as they are, because they’ve been exposed to the improper use of mental-illness terms and have lost sensitivity and relevance of the issue,” Saleh said. “I think the greater detriment would be if somebody would label someone who (is suspected of) a crime as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ without knowledge of that diagnosis. That’s a greater detriment, because it really makes people think that people with mental illness are criminals, and that’s really not the case. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals themselves.”

Kaitlyn Jakola, managing editor of the nonprofit digital media outlet The Trace, which covers gun violence in the United States, has a background in conscious copy editing. While copy editing has and always will be hyper-focused on the minutiae of language, recognizing and engaging myriad linguistic changes is foregrounded in 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. “The last several years in American politics, there’s so many things that are outrageous and extreme. And I can sense fatigue of, ‘How do we describe this?’ On the flip side, I also think there’s a sensitivity among traditional print media. They were accused for so long of not saying plainly what was happening that maybe there was an overcorrection. … It’s not the right solution to that problem, but I can see some sort 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 copy editors and newsroom managers interested in parsing language like this. There’s also the AMA Manual of Style, first published by the American Medical Association in 1962, and the American Psychological Association maintains a guide as well.

The Conscious Style Guide, a website and suite of resources maintained by Karen Yin since 2015, seeks to feature stories related to the thoughtful use of language and hosts guides that encompass everything from “Ability + Disability” to “Socioeconomic Status.”

Attention to this kind of language, even if the discussion around mental health hasn’t been advanced in the same way as other topics in American life, might be perceived as part of an overall cultural shift.

“For so long, we have taught journalism as a set of rules, and I think that this generation is very much demanding that we question who those rules serve,” said Patti Wolter, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a member of the Knight Foundation’s Science Journalism Project.

“The terms are more damaging when they’re being applied to people in derogatory ways, without an understanding of what a person may or may not be dealing with and the assumption of a negative connotation,” she said.

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

“As a professor, I want my students to be the ones who develop style guides (about) this in their workplaces — or they’re part of the voices in their workplaces that promote that kind of thinking and writing,” she said. “My job is to train the next generation to be thinking that way.”

Enhanced training for journalism students around language like this and other quickly changing facets of culture has been suggested as a way to affect change. But in addition to fostering academic discussions of language, Jakola, The Trace’s managing editor, offered a simple solution: Create and enforce style guides.

“I’ve tackled it through newsroom policy. And every newsroom I’ve been in, I’ve said, ‘Hey, we need to have a policy on the language we’re going to use,’” she said. “Ultimately, (from) my experience as a copy editor, people just want to be told what to do. And 99.9% of journalists are not going to argue with you about whether they can use (a) word, unless they’re persnickety or curmudgeons. … We don’t have to talk about it, we’re just going to do it and make it normal.”

However novel the changes that have coursed through newsrooms during the past several years might seem to some reporters, editors and newsroom managers, interrogating ideas around language connected to mental health — as well as race, gender and sexuality — is being increasingly called for.

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

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Dave Cantor is a Chicago-based writer and editor, who's been published in The New York Times, JazzTimes and sundry other publications.
Dave Cantor

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  • As a psychologist I have to say, your column is absolutely on target! Such language as ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ help perpetuate misunderstandings, as Saleh points out. It also furthers an ‘us/them’ divide that supports distancing from people struggling with psychological conditions. However, it seems to me the younger generation recognizes mental health and wellness as a component of overall health and wellness. Hopefully they will continue to lead the way in reducing the erroneous mind/body split and in fully respecting humans in their totality. Journalists are critical to advancing such a shift. Words matter.