What Are We Not Saying: The Criminalization of Mental Health Language

Sarah Yousuf, Esq., Thomas Brown, Alex Bou-Rhodes, Esq.., and Ivy Moody, Esq.

To the benefit of all members of our national and global community, conversations around mental health and the individual battles we all face have become more and more common place. From television and media, to academia, the professional sphere, and even the dinner table, mental health challenges continue to lose their stigma. But in an ever more litigious society with outdated ‘mental health’ laws, the discussion of mental health often comes with unhealthy, unproductive, and dangerous consequences.

Every State has what can be referred to as ‘trigger word’ laws. These laws intertwine in and around mandated reporting laws to create a minefield for those wishing to have open and honest conversations about mental health. The statutory schemes typically require providers and support personnel to report individuals seeking care who use certain language or ‘trigger language’ to describe their mental state. Failing to comply can lead to loss of funding or licensure, or even personal liability, creating an overwhelming pressure to overreport. Frank conversations of suicide, rage, strong emotions, or desire to cause harm, for example, must be coded with turned-down language or had in secret amongst the most trusted of confidants. The inability to have honest conversations, and the loss of the important nuance of knowing the difference between discussion and action steeped in these laws stalls healing, treatment, andthe ability to live authentically.

This workshop will begin with a statutory and policy review of the ‘trigger language’ and mandatory reporting laws*, move to a substantive discussion of the harmful impacts of these laws and the need for change, and will close out with a review of reform efforts. Without substantial reform to ‘trigger language’ and mandatory reporting laws, mental health care in the United States will remain entrenched in its carceral roots.

  • While there will be a focus on Massachusetts we will be sure to touch on National trends and comparative schemes.

    Learning Goals and Objectives:

  • Engage in a robust conversation of the dangers, risks, and challenges in access to comprehensive care of ‘trigger language’.
  • Understand the current status of mandatory reporting law, as well as common policy practices.
  • Have a general idea of diverse reform initiatives.