The year 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the AP Stylebook and there are more than 90 new or updated entries. One of the newly established entries was added in March and addresses mental illness. Mental illness can carry the stigma that people are violent, unstable, more prone to failure, weak, and are not worthy of equal treatment. A lack of understanding about mental illness and inaccurate reporting contributes to the stigma. To help nip those issues in the bud, it is advised to report based on the new journalistic guidelines.
The guidelines read as follows:
• Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.
• When used, identify the source for the diagnosis. Seek firsthand knowledge; ask how the source knows. Don’t rely on hearsay or speculate on a diagnosis. 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 be family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials and court records. 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 illness and should be used whenever possible: 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 (manic-depressive illness)
– Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
– Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
• Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.
• Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.
• 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.
• Use the term mental or psychiatric hospital, not asylum.
The vocabulary describing mental illness and intellectual disabilities have undergone radical changes in the past, and will likely continue to evolve in the future as individuals with special needs garner a higher degree of acceptance in society.
To review the Associated Press’ full entry and press release on the subject, visit http://www.ap.org/content/press-release/2013/entry-on-mental-illness-is-added-to-ap-stylebook.