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Physical, Mental, and Sexual Health

Updated April 19, 2022

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.

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Avoid Saying

Consider Replacing With

Why This Matters

mental illness, mental health issue
mental health condition
Not all mental health conditions are illnesses or diseases. Using these words can misrepresent an individual and/or cause shame and stigma.
they're struggling with a mental health condition
they have a mental health condition
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.

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Avoid Saying

Consider Replacing With

Why This Matters

committed suicide, killed themself
died by suicide, took their own life
The word "commit" implies a criminal act and casts blame on the person.
they are suicidal
they are experiencing suicidal thoughts
The preferred phrase represents a temporary state rather than describing a person in an absolute way.
unsuccessful suicide attempt
nonfatal suicide attempt
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

Do Use

substance abuse, drug abuse
substance misuse, harmful use of a substance
junkie, user, drug addict, drug abuser
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.

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Avoid Saying

Consider Replacing With

Why This Matters

safe sex
safer sex
"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.
infected
contracted, transmitted, acquired
Because of the negative connotations and blame associated with the term "infected," use other phrases.
clean/dirty
tested negative/positive for [a specific disease or condition]
Connecting a disease status or test result to concepts of cleanliness and dirtiness contributes to harmful stigmas and misconceptions about sexually transmitted diseases.
promiscuous
has multiple sex partners
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.

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Avoid Saying

(in the context of sexual violence)

Consider Replacing With

Why This Matters

sex scandal
sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape
The phrase "sex scandal" diminishes and sensationalizes the crime.
sex or intercourse
rape, unwanted sexual penetration, sexual violence, sexual assault
Using the right term lets the public understand the act was one of violence rather than mutual consent.
perform oral sex
forced oral and genital contact
Describe the act accurately instead of using a word that portrays the victim as a primary actor.
fondle
grope, unwanted touching
Use language that signifies that the act was unwanted.
engaged in
was forced to
Avoid language that implies that the victim consented to the act.
victim admits, victim confesses
victim reports, victim says
Use neutral and objective language to describe the report.
accuser
alleged victim, survivor (if perpetrator has been convicted)
Use the word "alleged" when necessary prior to conviction.
accused
alleged perpetrator, perpetrator (if perpetrator has been convicted)
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.

Read More: 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.

Angelique Geehan

Reviewed by:

Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange — a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup and QTPOC+ Family Circle.

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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/