AP Stylebook adds “mental illness” entry

The AP Stylebook today added a new entry on mental illness. Read the whole thing, but I’ve excerpted some of the best parts below:

mental illness Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced. …

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.

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 most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness. …

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder. …

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

This is a tremendously progressive and much-needed addition. As I’ve mentioned in this blog’s comment policy, the terms mentioned above are indeed derogatory. Those and other terms based on illness and disability — lame, crippled, blind used in a metaphorical sense to mean “willfully ignorant,” etc. — only have teeth because we are meant to understand illness and disability as a fundamentally undesirable state of being.

Pertinent to the AP Stylebook’s new entry, biased language like this is also likely to be incorrect and vague, especially when used to describe people. What does it mean for someone to be “acting crazy”? Does a particular diagnosis matter, or do a person’s specific actions matter in a specific context? For example, another part of the entry says “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.” Which is a more vivid description: a character who’s “kind of OCD” or a character who’s “very organized, and insists on having every jar in the spice rack placed just so, arranged in alphabetical order”? The second description probably fits a lot of people who meet few or none of the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it also gives the reader more insight into a character than a vague label of OCD would. It also has the benefit of not alienating readers who actually do have obsessive-compulsive disorder and are frustrated by seeing the term misused to describe feelings and actions that are not at all like true OCD.

In summary, I am entirely in favor of and heartened by this addition.

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