Physical, Mental, and Sexual Health

Physical, Mental, and Sexual Health

Why It's Important

Mental health conditions among college students continue to increase,1 highlighting an ongoing need for understanding and empathy. According to the Mayo Clinic,2 over 40% of college students reported symptoms of depression and anxiety in 2021. Additionally, half of the U.S. population3 is likely to experience a mental health condition that requires the support of others.

Additionally, one out of every six American women has been the victim of rape or an attempted rape, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.4 On college campuses, there are two sexual assaults for every robbery, and college-age victims often do not report their experiences to law enforcement.

Language around health and wellness must be inclusive of all people’s backgrounds and experiences. Sexual, mental, and physical health include complex and diverse topics. Our communications about health and wellness should take a stigma-free, nonjudgmental approach.

Mental Health

Historically, there has been stigma surrounding discussions about mental health. Speaking with compassion and understanding honors people’s diverse mental health journeys and opens avenues for support and intervention.

Avoid Saying

mental illness, mental health issue

they're struggling with a mental health condition

Consider Replacing With

mental health condition

they have a mental health condition

Why This Matters

Not all mental health conditions are illnesses or diseases. Using these words can misrepresent an individual and/or cause shame and stigma.

Use "have" rather than "struggling with" to speak neutrally about a person's mental health.

Suicide

Avoid language that associates suicide or suicidal thoughts with crime, sin, blame, or moral obligation.

Avoid Saying

committed suicide, killed themself

they are suicidal

unsuccessful suicide attempt

Consider Replacing With

died by suicide, took their own life

they are experiencing suicidal thoughts

nonfatal suicide attempt

Why This Matters

The word "commit" implies a criminal act and casts blame on the person.

The preferred phrase represents a temporary state rather than describing a person in an absolute way.

A nonfatal suicide attempt is not a failure. Be careful not to use judgmental language ("unsuccessful") when discussing such a sensitive topic.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential, and anyone can use this service.

Eating Disorders

Individuals of all genders, backgrounds, sizes, and identities experience eating disorders. Assumptions and stereotypes about eating disorders and those affected promote stigma and limit people’s access to treatment. Avoid descriptions that quantify an individual’s weight, clothing size, food intake, or changes in body measurements.

Substance Use

When discussing substance misuse, disorders, or addiction use nonjudgmental language that does not assign personal blame.

Don’t Use

substance abuse, drug abuse

junkie, user, drug addict, drug abuser

Do Use

substance misuse, harmful use of a substance

person with substance use disorder, person who uses drugs or substances

Safer Sex Terminology

Avoid connecting a person’s sexual activity with their moral character. This harmful connection leads to stigma and enforces the negative belief that an activity or person can be wrong, abnormal, or amoral. Discuss sexual health in neutral terms to provide nonjudgmental information.

Avoid Saying

safe sex

infected

clean/dirty

promiscuous

Consider Replacing With

safer sex

contracted, transmitted, acquired

tested negative/positive for [a specific disease or condition]

has multiple sex partners

Why This Matters

"Safer sex" challenges the idea that there is "safe" and "unsafe" sex. This term encompasses a spectrum of safer sex practices like disinfecting sex toys and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Because of the negative connotations and blame associated with the term "infected," use other phrases.

Connecting a disease status or test result to concepts of cleanliness and dirtiness contributes to harmful stigmas and misconceptions about sexually transmitted diseases.

A person with multiple sex partners is not necessarily promiscuous. Avoid using this term.

Menstruation

Pads, tampons, and menstrual cups are used by all genders. When discussing menstruation, use phrases such as “people who menstruate,” rather than “women.” Avoid phrases like “feminine hygiene products.” Instead, use “menstrual products.”

Reproductive Rights

Use gender-inclusive language when discussing reproductive rights. Transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming individuals all experience reproductive injustice alongside cisgender women.

Sexual Violence

When writing about sexual abuse, it’s important to mention resources — such as hotlines, warning signs, and support groups — that could help readers get help or gather more information. The following is an example of this:

Help is available. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-4673. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek legal counsel. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek help or dial 911.

There are precise legal differences between terms like sexual assault, rape, harassment, and sexual abuse, so use specific and careful language when referencing this subject.5 See the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission6 and the American Psychological Association7 for legal definitions of these terms.

Avoid Saying(in the context of sexual violence)

sex scandal

sex or intercourse

perform oral sex

fondle

engaged in

victim admits, victim confesses

accuser

accused

Consider Replacing With

sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape

rape, unwanted sexual penetration, sexual violence, sexual assault

forced oral and genital contact

grope, unwanted touching

was forced to

victim reports, victim says

alleged victim, survivor (if perpetrator has been convicted)

alleged perpetrator, perpetrator (if perpetrator has been convicted)

Why This Matters

The phrase "sex scandal" diminishes and sensationalizes the crime.

Using the right term lets the public understand the act was one of violence rather than mutual consent.

Describe the act accurately instead of using a word that portrays the victim as a primary actor.

Use language that signifies that the act was unwanted.

Avoid language that implies that the victim consented to the act.

Use neutral and objective language to describe the report.

Use the word "alleged" when necessary prior to conviction.

Use the word "alleged" when necessary prior to conviction.

Victim vs. Survivor

The term victim is typically used when referring to a person who has recently experienced sexual violence or when discussing a crime. Survivor is often used to refer to a person who is going through the recovery process when discussing the effects of sexual violence. Sometimes, writers may find it appropriate to alternate between the two terms.

Both terms are acceptable, but it’s best to be respectful and ask for the individual’s preference.

Impact of Sexual Violence Across Genders

People of all gender identities can experience sexual violence.8 The rates are disproportionately high for people who are trans and non-binary compared to those who are cisgender, but studies frequently only have identifier options for women and men. People who do not fit into one of these gender categories are either misidentified or removed from the data collection.

When citing any data source, be mindful of the data’s limitations and indicate if any groups were excluded from the data collection.

For more advice related to gender, see the Gender and Sexuality section of our Conscious Language Guide.

Trigger and Content Warnings Explained

While trigger and content warnings are not generally part of our everyday verbal conversations, they pop up in written communications and other forms of media regularly. The purpose of these warnings is to let readers, viewers, and/or listeners know that upcoming topics cover certain information that may be challenging.

This gives people a chance to decide what content they want to consume, in case they wish to avoid activating or “triggering” any negative effects of past or ongoing trauma. Trigger and content warnings can flag topics that include, but are not limited to, sexual violence, substance use, suicide, and eating disorders.

Learn more about our editorial process

Sources

  1. Sources Beresin, G., Abdu-Glass, E., & Schlozman, S. (2017, February 7). The college mental health crisis: A call for cultural change — Part 2. The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. https://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/college-mental-health-crisis-call-cultural-change-part-2/
  2. Mayo Clinic Health System Staff. (2021, September 7). What parents need to know about college students and depression. Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/college-students-and-depression
  3. Active Minds. (n.d.). Statistics. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.activeminds.org/about-mental-health/statistics/
  4. Truman, J. L. & Langton, L. (2015, September 29). Criminal victimization, 2014. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs: Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv14.pdf
  5. Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. (2019). Reporting on sexual violence: A media guide for Maine journalists. https://www.mecasa.org/uploads/1/0/1/7/101776612/mecasa_media_guide_2019.pdf
  6. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Harassment. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.eeoc.gov/harassment
  7. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Psychology topics. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics
  8. Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. (n.d.). Gender and sexuality in sexual violence. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.sace.ca/learn/gender-sexuality/