I recently asked a question which had a list of suspects. Each suspect had a list of details, and one of the details was a mental illness. That's all, it literally merely stated a mental illness, didn't say anything about them or people with them.

People in the comments below started getting a bit tetchy and seemed very offended. I started getting downvotes and was forced to delete the question. So this doesn't happen again and so I know what I can ask without this problem, I ask

What counts as offensive in questions, was my question actually OK, and does stating illnesses and thing like that count as offensive if nothing else is said about them?

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, it is unrealistic that anyone could write a book, much less an answer, that comprehensively tackles the question as posed here. This is not to say "people are offended by everything these days!" because that's the way a child sees oppression; the reality is just that it's more complicated than saying "Avoid words X, Y, and Z" or anything like that. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @question_asker that what I thought, what some see as offensive, others don't. For some reason people do seem very quick to jump on something innocent and call it offensive or criticise it these days. Pitfall of modern society. Maybe someone should write a book about this problem 😊 $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ My general rule of thumb is: if someone says something is offensive, consider their point of view, and think of why it might be offensive to them (they often add something implying or outright stating what is offensive about it, as they did in the case of your deleted question). Sure, not everybody is offended by the same things, but not everybody faces the same set(s) of oppressions. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @question_asker thanks Ill be more careful in the future $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ No problem! Glad someone was able to phrase an answer about the specific issue better than I could :) $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


The sort of thing that qualifies as "offensive" is culturally up for debate. There's no way to broadly classify what counts as offensive, and we will, inevitably, have to rely on the "I know it when I see it" rule.

That being said, I might be able to shed some light on why your question was viewed as offensive. It's not something I think is great to debate the veracity of on Puzzling Meta, and a lot of this is personal opinion speaking as someone with a long-term (if low-grade) mental illness. However, I think it's important to at least touch on.

Mental illnesses are a sensitive topic in modern society. There's an enormous amount of stigma associated with having one, and a large amount of fear surrounding it. Most people don't understand what they are or what the actual impact on someone's life is (and frankly, most people don't bother).

One of the central stereotypes that people with mental illnesses are fighting against is that they are somehow strongly connected with murders and violence, particularly school shootings. Many people feel that it's seriously harming the human support network people with mental illnesses need by driving away individuals who could help them, both structurally and socially. This is a broad, complicated issue, and this only scratches the surface.

When you write a puzzle that puts primary school murder suspects in a list with their mental illnesses, you've indirectly implied that the mental illnesses are causally related to those murders. It's a principle called Chekhov's gun - you wouldn't put it there if you didn't find it relevant. And that's a problem.

This isn't to say this is your fault, but in the future, please be careful about which ideas you're connecting and which types of people you're implicating.

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    $\begingroup$ Aaaaah thanks @Emrakul I can see now why that was seen as offensive. I had no intention of it coming across like that, but I probably should have thought about that before hand. I only did those illnesses in the first place because the only rebus I could think of for one of the symbol combinations is bipolar, so I tried to give everyone something similar so that they wouldn't automatically stick out. Sorry if I offended you or anyone else, it was done without malice $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great explanation of the specific issue, thank you for this. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ @BeastlyGerbil That makes sense! And it's fine, really. It happens, and at worst, it's just something to be aware of for the future. $\endgroup$
    – user20
    Apr 5, 2016 at 19:55

I suspect that the issue in this particular case was that no one knew the relevance of those particular mental illnesses to the puzzle.

There is already a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, and the puzzle was asking people to find a murderer among five suspects, all of whom had a mental illness. The implication that can be drawn from this (even though I'm sure it wasn't intended) is that people with mental illnesses are more likely to commit crimes or are more suspect than anyone else.

I don't know how the mental illnesses factored into the actual puzzle, but from the way it was arranged, I suspect it was only a single letter from each one that was relevant. If that is the case, I would suggest using something different, with less stigma surrounding it, to supply the relevant letter for the puzzle.

As for the broader question, @question_asker notes that a comprehensive answer to this question is nigh-impossible. The best advice is to avoid any sort of topic that could be sensitive unless it is an integral part of the puzzle.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for that, when I was writing in the mental illnesses I completely forgot about the situation. It was completely without that sort of malice and any conclusions drawn were unintended $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2016 at 19:52

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