Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has made behavioral health a focus of her public service for many years. The Carter Center and SAMHSA have worked together to produce a guide for journalists when writing about people with mental health and substance use disorders, but the same guidance can be useful for public officials talking about mental illness and addiction concerns.

1 in 5 adults experienced mental illness in the past year

According to SAMHSA, in 2014, 1 in 5 adults had experienced mental illness in the past year, and nearly 10m adults suffered from serious mental illness. The annual survey also showed 27m people aged twelve or older used an illicit drug within the past month - about 10% of the population. This issue affects every town and costs the country $94n in lost productivity.

The journalism advice is simple:
  • Talk about “a person with schizophrenia” not “a schizophrenic” as though an individual’s medical condition defines them
  • Say “a person was disoriented” rather than labeling them as crazy
  • Describe “a person with a substance use disorder” rather than an addict

You can download the journalist’s guide here

The guide recommends that news stories point out the value in emphasizing that treatment is available and it can work. Access is better than ever given the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act. That’s important for public servants who might be called upon to speak about an incident. People can find a place to get help here by entering a zip code. One problem with resource locators is that they’re often out of date. SAMHSA updates theirs every two weeks to beat that problem. SAMHSA has a Treatment Referral Helpline at

1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)

There is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at

1-800-273-8255

or use live online chat. It’s available 24 x 7 and is staffed by people around the country. Go to the page, accept the terms of service, enter your zip code and answer a few questions.

If your community leaders are dealing with behavioral health issues, and every community is, make sure they know about these resources, and the Stepping Up Initiative that’s providing tools for counties to reduce the number of people with mental illness in our jails.

Mental illness is a difficult topic to talk about. It gets easier when we use the right words.