AP Style Mental Illness

AP Style states that you should not describe someone as “mentally ill” unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

When you do use it, identify the source for the diagnosis. Seek firsthand knowledge; ask how the source knows. Never rely on hearsay or speculate on a diagnosis.

You should also specify the time frame for the diagnosis and ask about treatment. A person’s condition can change over time, so a diagnosis of mental illness might not apply anymore.

Avoid anonymous sources. On-the-record sources can by family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials, and court records. However, be sure they have accurate information to make the diagnosis. Provide examples of symptoms.

Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illnesses and should be used whenever possible. For example,

  • He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents.
  • She was diagnosed with anorexia, according to her parents.
  • He was treated for depression.

Some common mental disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (mental illnesses or disorders are lowercase, except when known by the name of a person, such as Asperger’s syndrome):

  • Autism spectrum disorders
    • These include Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. Many experts consider autism a developmental disorder, not a mental illness.
    • Bipolar disorder (maniac depressive illness)
    • Depression
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Schizophrenia

Do not use derogatory terms, such as “insane,” “crazy/crazed,” “nuts,” or “deranged,” unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to your story.

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

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 or 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.

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” or “victim of.” Use instead, “has/have.” For example,

  • Wrong: The man suffers from schizophrenia.
  • Correct: The man has schizophrenia.

Double-check specific symptoms and diagnoses. Avoid interpreting behavior common to many people as symptoms of mental illness. Sadness, anger, exuberance, and the occasional desire to be alone are normal emotions experienced by people who have mental illness as well as those who don’t.

Wherever possible, rely on people with a mental illness to talk about their own diagnosis.

Avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues. Don’t say that an awards show, for example, was schizophrenic.

Use the term “mental” or “psychiatric hospital,” not asylum.

See also AP Style Asperger’s Syndrom, AP Style Disabled, Handicapped, AP Style Phobia, and AP Style Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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