The Need for Trauma-Sensitive Language Use in Literacy and Health Literacy Screening Instruments


The authors recently began a research study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, aimed at increasing the understanding of the ways in which limited literacy affects the lives of people with serious mental illness. In preparing for the study, the authors reviewed many health literacy screens and assessments for their appropriateness in public urban mental health settings. The Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine and the Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults, perhaps the most frequently used assessments of health literacy, involve assessments that include lists of words that the test-taker must choose from or read. Each of these instruments includes language that is potentially triggering for trauma survivors, particularly those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The research participants for the current project are consumers of mental health services, and thus, the authors believe it is essential to remove the problematic language, given that the likelihood of a diagnosis of PTSD and/or a history of abuse is higher than average among this population. However, the authors argue that this issue applies to anyone who administers these instruments, because sexual assault and abuse, as well as PTSD diagnoses, are certainly not confined to those who seek mental health services. The authors' aim is not only to call attention to the use of triggering language in existing literacy and health-related assessments and research instruments, but also to advocate that others take similar steps toward embracing more sensitive language by removing or replacing words that may cause unnecessary stress, anxiety, or pain to those who are at increased risk of retraumatization.

Journal of Health Communication, 18(S1)
Chris Prener
Chris Prener
Assistant Professor of Sociology

My research interests include first responder work, urban neighborhood disorder, and tracing the effects of place on poor health outcomes.