When we write about health, both physical and mental, it's important to be especially careful about word choices. Here are our guidelines.
PS: This guide is being continuously updated, let us know if we've missed something or you have a relevant question!
- Read through Lydia X. Z. Brown's list of ableist language
- Person first language (Sally is autistic = identity first vs. Sally has autism = person first) is controversial. If you're writing about a person, you can ask them what they prefer. When in doubt, read this guide from the Association of Health Care Journalists for more details or talk to your editor.
- Avoid saying that people are addicts or alcoholics; rather, they are addicted to xyz, they have alcoholism.
- In general, call communities what they want to be called. For example, the Deaf community typically goes by the capitalized term when referring to Deaf culture or identity. Again, remember to ask your sources what they prefer, and read what other journalists are doing.
- Dan is a wheelchair user, not wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair.
- Avoid impaired, as in hearing-impaired, vision-impaired. Instead, use hard-of-hearing or low vision. Also avoid referring to "normal" hearing.
- Avoid crazy, you can use wild, unbelievable, bizarre, absurd instead
- Avoid saying someone is suffering from an illness unless they use that language themselves
- Try not to use the word patient if you don't have to. It distances the reader from an actual person (and usually person and patient are interchangeable anyway)
- Do not talk about success when describing suicide attempts. Additionally, committed suicide should be avoided and replaced by alternatives such as died by suicide, took one's own life. [The reason is that commit implies criminal action]
- Avoid words like abuse and problem when talking about addiction; instead say use, overuse or misuse and add an adjective like risky, heavy, unhealthy, etc.
- Try to be specific when discussing mental illness, going by diagnoses rather than lumping many conditions into the one term.
- Vegetative state: don't use. Instead, use unresponsive patients/people, patients in unresponsive states or minimally conscious.
- Avoid images with unnecessary needles, they are triggering for some people and may influence people's negative feelings toward vaccines
- On the other hand, it's great to use images of people feeling happy while they get vaccinated
- Depictions of intravenous drug use should be especially avoided