Are you sure it is PTSD or just common anxiety? Is it depression or just burnout? Lazy, or stressed?
Along with raising awareness of the role trauma and mental health plays in our everyday lives, there’s also the integration of terms associated with common vocab. We now regard our favorite experiences as “therapy”. We ” pillow talk” what troubles our mind. We “compartmentalize” our thoughts and actions. We claim, jokingly, to suffer from “PTSD” after a cooking or outdoor disaster.
As this otherwise feisty language makes way into common talk, it becomes tempting to use them as journalists. The results can be disastrous, not just to the general public, but even to your sources.
Journalists owe to their professional ethics and the public at large to interview and report in a language that does not underwhelm or exaggerate. In the case of mental health, the improper use of language can have far-reaching consequences on the public perception of such the language used and the condition being talked about. A critical example is saying “Sheyi became depressed after her experience with the police.” A true journalist owes it to the public to ask him/herself, critically; was Sheyi repressed?
Did Sheyi seek a professional opinion about the depression? What can be used to consecrate her experience or emotion at that given time?
The journalists have to seek opinions from experts on what the person felt. Note that by saying Sheyi was depressed due to police brutality, not only are you directly implying that your source was depressed, you’re also (indirectly) implying that other thousands of youths who’d gone through the meshes of police brutality suffered depression, or at least were predisposed to it.
It becomes trickier when even interviewing the source. How do you speak with a source without awakening docile trauma or giving the source a wrong impression of their condition? Pro journalists focusing on trauma advise asking a close relative of the source for a list of words that might otherwise trigger unwanted reactions.
The truth is if you ask a source if he/she experienced PTSD after a disaster, there’s a higher chance he/she will reply in the same language you asked. “Yes/No, I did/didn’t experience PTSD.”
In the usual case that your source has an unexpressed emotion from the experience, he/she will likely reply positively.
Dealing with the issue of language requires falling back on the rule: Show, don’t tell.
“Sheyi underwent an otherwise unusual period after her experiences with the police. She found it hard to eat, bathe, or get sleep without the use of meds. At some point, Sheyi suspected she might be clinically depressed, but could confirm because she did not seek a medical opinion. ‘It was a dark time in my life. I was zombie-ing through life.” She said,
But wait. How do you ask Sheyi if she suspected depression without implying it to her?
“So following your experience that night with the policemen, how did that experience affect your life after that night? What are the changes you think happened to you due to that experience?”
“I slept less. Sometimes, I barely slept. I started using drugs to enable me to sleep well. I also remember not eating or performing proper personal hygiene because everything felt pointless…”
The journalist, after seeking professional advice from an expert then asks her, “do you suspect these might be symptoms of clinical depression? Did you seek a medical opinion?
Journalism is paying attention to the nuance of language. Being aware of how language is morphing subconsciously across a social collective, and knowing how your response to that change in language intersects with your ethics as a journalist, and how that intersection affects the general public.