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Media guidelines: Talking about mental health

Language can cause unintentional harm and reinforce stigma. But when we get it right, we have the power to transform lives. Read these guidelines, informed by conversations with people with mental health problems.

Mae'r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg. This link will take you to a Welsh translation of this page.

How Mind's Media Advisory Service can help

If you need support, contact Mind’s Media Advisory Service. We provide advice for journalists, documentary makers, producers, researchers, and writers on how to report and depict mental health.

We can advise on initial concepts, story outlines, and feedback on scripts. We also involve people with lived experience to share their expertise with media professionals.

Email Mind's Media Advisory Service

Prefer this information in a PDF? Download a PDF version of these guidelines.

Download the PDF

Top tips when talking about mental health in the media

Language matters. The media matters. That’s why how we talk about mental health in the media matters.

This language guide isn’t about policing how and what we say. It's a quick tool to help all of us in the media talk more powerfully and sensitively about mental health. 

Tip 1 – Think about the language you use

Some phrases use inaccurate or outdated stereotypes that reinforce mental health stigma. For example, phrases around crime and danger are sometimes used wrongly when talking about mental health. This feeds into increased stigma and misinformation. 

Tip 2 – Take care when talking about suicide

Use content warnings where possible. It’s important to avoid mentioning specific suicide methods or locations. Doing this can be triggering. It can encourage people to follow this behaviour, and put others at risk.

Try not to speculate about why someone may have taken their own life. Suicide is complex and unlikely to be due to one single factor.

When speaking about someone who took their own life, avoid saying that someone committed suicide. For many people, this implies suicide is a crime. 

Read the Samaritan’s media guides for reporting on suicide.

Tip 3 – Remember that people's experiences of mental health are different

When it comes to mental health problems, treatment and support, remember – what works for one person doesn't always work for another.

Try not to imply that a single approach will work for everyone. Reaching out for help is an important first step to getting support. It's something we should encourage. But we also need to be realistic about the challenges people might face when accessing support.

It's also important not to generalise different mental health experiences as being the same for all marginalised groups. For example, grouping all people of colour's experiences together.

Tip 4 – Don't oversimplify the causes of mental health problems

A combination of factors might add to a mental health problem over time. This might include losing your home or job, problems with relationships, and experiences of discrimination, including racism.

Tip 5 – Resilience is complex

Some people think resilience, or our ability to manage stress, is something we can all easily control. But this isn’t true.

It’s important to acknowledge things that might make it harder to be resilient. For example, if someone's experiencing stress or discrimination, or if they don’t have much support.

Tip 6 – Be careful when highlighting the positive 

Stories of how people have coped with difficult experiences can be very powerful. But they can also make people feel inadequate or unseen.

It’s great to share a positive mental health story, but try to avoid sweeping statements based on one person's experience. Try to acknowledge that people's experiences are different.

Alice is a poet who lives in London. She’s experienced depression and anxiety since she was 12 after her mum passed away. Her mum had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

“I’ve heard phrases like "she’s gone mad", "he’s mental", or "they’re acting like a psycho" so many times over the years. It makes me so sad. 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem in any year. So instead of ridiculing us with words, why not show compassion? You never know – one day you might be the one who’s being mocked.”  

Common examples of unhelpful language, and what to say instead

This is not a definitive list, but we've put together some common examples of language which many people tell us they find unhelpful.

People have different views on what language best describes them and their own experiences. Be flexible and listen.

Phrases to avoid

  • Suffering. Describing someone as suffering with a mental health problem can imply weakness. It’s important to ask people what language they'd prefer you to use. People will have different views on what language best describes their experience. For example, someone may say they're ‘suffering’ if they can't get the right support because of waiting times.
  • Schizophrenic or depressive. Lead with the person, not the mental health problem. Those of us with mental health problems are more than our diagnosis. We're people, first and always. 
  • Pull yourself together, just get on with it, smile more, attention seeking. Some mental health problems are misunderstood or trivialised. Phrases which imply mental health problems are easy to overcome trivialise our experiences.
  • Labelling people as a snowflake if they're talking about their feelings. Remember, it can be difficult to share how you're feeling. And stigma only increases feelings of loneliness, making it harder for people to seek help. 
  • Describing someone's behaviour as ‘schizo’. Mental health language is often misused to describe behaviours that are unrelated to a certain diagnosis. This isn't fair on us with these diagnoses.
  • Split personality. In the past, this phrase has been used to describe the impact of several mental health problems. Doctors haven't used the phrase for many years. It's inaccurate and stigmatising.
  • Talking about someone who likes being clean as ‘a bit OCD’. Obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious mental health problem. It's more complex than being organised or tidy. 
  • 'Prisoners' or 'inmates' for those in a psychiatric hospital. Avoid saying ‘released’ from a hospital. This implies someone has been ‘imprisoned’ and committed a crime.
  • Language like psycho and psychopath when describing someone experiencing psychosis. ‘Psycho’ is a slang term which is used to stigmatise people, rather than describe a specific mental health experience. 'Psychopathy’ is an outdated term. If someone's experiencing hallucinations, delusions or disorganised thinking or speech, we may refer to this as an experience of psychosis. But it’s important to understand what psychosis means and to use it accurately. Read our information on psychosis.
  • Slang like ‘maniac’, ‘mad’, ‘nuts’, ‘lunatic’, or ‘psycho’. Using lazy mental health labels trivialises what it's like to have a mental health problem. It also adds to stigma.
  • Happy pills or chill pills. This implies an over-simplified view of what depression and anxiety are, and the effects of medication. Also, lots of psychiatric medication isn't solely used for mental health problems.

Phrases to use instead

  • Experiencing or living with a mental health problem. This can be less stigmatising than saying 'suffering'.
  • Person experiencing or living with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety. Instead of describing someone as depressive or schizophrenic, you should lead with the person. We're more than our diagnoses.
  • Someone who's struggling needs support and compassion. Instead of telling them to get on with it, or pull themselves together, encourage them to seek support instead.
  • Honour people's experiences and feelings. Don't criticise or belittle them for talking about their emotions.
  • If someone who doesn’t have a mental health problem is behaving inappropriately, describe that behaviour for what it is. Don't use misleading language around mental health.
  • If someone's in a mental health hospital, you could say they're a patient, service user, or client.
  • Only refer to psychosis when someone is experiencing an actual episode of psychosis.
  • Describe people’s emotions and behaviours accurately. Words like eccentric, wild, angry, or chaotic are more suitable and specific than 'maniac', 'mad' or 'nuts'.
  • When talking about medication, say prescription drugs, anti-anxiety medication, or antidepressants.

Sandeep is a mental health campaigner in Essex. She's been living with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), anorexia and OCD since she was 25.

“I’ve endured so much stigma in the way people talk about eating disorders, including claims of being vain. Comments which have stuck to me like a leech.  I experience immense feelings of guilt, fear, and anxiety. Despite this, I often hear the phrase ‘it’s just a phase’ related to my BDD. It’s not straightforward to just press the on/off button – the language used does not reflect the realities of life. It just makes me feel alone, isolated and misunderstood.”

Talking to someone about their stigmatising language

Whether you work in the media or not, it’s important to try and improve the way we talk about mental health.

The media has a huge influence in the way we use language. Mentioning someone’s poor language can feel daunting. But it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might think. Here’s an example of how you might want to have this conversation.

In practice – how to challenge someone's language

George, Alex and Jamie are friends. George’s sister, Alex, has a mental health problem. George has noticed how Jamie regularly slips into stigmatising language, including calling people 'psychos' and 'freaks'.

George is also uncomfortable about how Jamie has referred to his sister’s mental health in the past, insisting she’s ‘oversensitive’ and ‘fragile’ and needs ‘to snap out of it’.

Jamie often reads newspaper articles, listens to the radio, and watches TV. George can see how this media influences how Jamie thinks and feels about mental health. 

George thinks about how to handle this conversation. He checks that Jamie isn't in a rush and has time to talk. To prepare, George makes some notes on his phone. George then finds a quiet space.

George chooses a moment when they’re out cycling in their local park. He finds a spot to take a moment. They sit side by side, looking forward, rather than looking at each other, to reduce any sense of confrontation or awkwardness.  

George acknowledges that he used to use similar phrases, to help Jamie feel at ease. George says having a sister with a mental health problem helped him realise some of the words and phrases he was using were inaccurate and stigmatising.

George then reaffirms that he knows Jamie cares about Alex and is not a bad person for saying these things. It’s important for Jamie not to feel attacked and to be able to have an open and honest 2-way conversation.  

George asks Jamie why he uses these phrases, trying to open up the conversation to Jamie’s view as much as possible. As well as actively listening and reacting, George shares how this language makes him and his sister feel. 

When the conversation naturally ends, it’s important George doesn’t make Jamie agree with him immediately or apologise. It takes a lot to raise the issue, so for now, listening is enough.

Now, in his own time, Jamie can think about what was said, reconsider why he uses the words he did, and decide whether he should change his approach.

Tips you can take from this example:

  • Find time to have a conversation – make sure nobody is rushed or stressed and you're relaxed and in private
  • It helps if you’re focusing on something together or sat side by side to make the conversation more informal
  • Actively listen to the other person and listen to what they say when they respond
  • Put the person first and show how stigmatising language can be
  • Don’t demand they apologise – just let them hear you, and give them time to think through your point of view in their own time

1 in 4 people who watched, heard, or read about mental health in the media felt inspired to start a conversation about their own mental health as a result.

Research by Populus for Mind and ITV (2022)

Content warnings

Content warnings let you know that there's sensitive content or imagery coming, that may have a negative impact on someone.

It allows people to make a choice about the content they watch, listen to or read. Content and trigger warnings are often used interchangeably, but some people may use a trigger warning to address specific concerns.

The perfect content warning doesn’t exist. There’s no single way to write them. But the goal should be to HELP as many people as possible to engage with it in a safe way.

  • H – Headline content warnings so they're the first thing the reader or audience sees or notices.
  • E – Explain specifically what you're warning about. Language like ‘upsetting experiences’ is too vague. Stay focused by saying the content includes ‘suicidal feelings’ or ‘being sectioned’.
  • L – Label what's been left out. This helps the audience to judge the level of risk for themselves.
  • P – Precise. Use short sentences and plain English.

For example, a good content warning might say: This documentary talks about depression and symptoms of psychosis. We describe paranoia and fears related to covid-19, which might be distressing to hear about.  

Signposting readers and viewers to information and support

When you're writing or talking about issues which might impact a reader, listener, or viewer, you should signpost to appropriate information, help and support. Check out our list of charities and support services below.

Other ways to get involved

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