A health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings or behavior and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others, and is not always obvious. Recognize that the terms mental illness and mental health disorder cover a wide range of conditions, and, whenever possible, the specific diagnosis for an individual should be used rather than the blanket term.
Mental illnesses also are known as mental disorders. The most common forms of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia disorders. One in four adults experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, although severity and symptoms vary widely. For more information on mental illness, see the National Institute for Mental Health. Because of perceived stigma, some people are calling for an end to the use of the term mental illness, suggesting instead terms such as person diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder or person with a mental health history. However, the term is still widely used within the medical and psychiatric professions.
The American Psychiatric Association offers a useful guide to media on use of appropriate terms. The association recommends using people-first language to describe mental illness in order to avoid defining a person by his or her disability. She experiences symptoms of psychosis is preferable to she is psychotic; he is living with bipolar disorder is preferable to he is bipolar; and she has autism is preferable to she is autistic.
Refer to an individual’s mental illness only when it is relevant to the story and the diagnosis comes from a proper source. Whenever possible, specify the specific illness a person has rather than mental illness in general. Always refer to someone with a mental illness as a person first. Use quotes when officials or family members use a term such as a history of mental illness to refer to an individual and indicate when appropriate that the diagnosis has not been confirmed.