Talking about mental health

Talking about mental health

The key thing to remember when talking about mental health is the principle of respect. Remember, talk about people before illnesses and don’t distance yourself from anybody experiencing a mental health problem.

Mental health problems   

This is the term we generally use, particularly for public audiences. Research shows it is the most commonly understood term and resonates with all audiences.

Mental distress   

This is a term preferred in some circles as more inclusive than “mental health problems”. But the general public don’t understand it and it doesn’t engage them. Avoid using it when you’re writing for a general audience.

Mental illness   

This is a more specific term than “mental health problems”, and tends to be used to refer to more severe and enduring conditions. Some audiences are more familiar with it than “mental health problems”. Others prefer it as they want their condition to be recognised as an illness. However, others reject it as part of a ‘medical model’ of mental health. Some feel it’s stigmatising.
Consider whether it is appropriate in the context and with the audience.

Mental disorder or psychiatric disorder   

This term is only to be used in the context of an official document that uses them, for example the Mental Health Act. Otherwise, they can be offensive.

Service user   

Don’t use this term to refer to everybody with mental health problems – not all of them are service users. It is jargon. Only use it when it is the correct term and appropriate to the context.

“People with a diagnosis of …” or “Chris has…”   

These terms should be used rather than using a diagnosis as a noun: “a schizophrenic” or “a depressive”.
Remember: people are people not a diagnosis.
Don’t use “suffering with” or “victim of”, this can be seen as negative and patronising.

Survivor or mental health survivor   

This term is preferred in some networks of those with direct experience. However, it is not recognised or understood by the general public so we should avoid using it.

Experts through experience   

This is the preferred term for anybody with a mental health problem who is involved in mental health work.


This is the appropriate term. Don’t use “self-mutilation” or “self-injury”.


Generally, we would refer to someone “taking their own life”. Be sensitive when writing about suicide, consider the feelings of friends and family as well as the potential to “trigger” others.
Don’t use the phrase “committing suicide” – it’s not a crime.
The Samaritans’ media guidelines are a useful guide:


Consider who will be reading your words

Is there anything in it that could be distressing or upsetting for someone with mental health problems to read? Is there anything that could trigger people to self-harm? If so, think carefully about whether you need to rewrite. If you think it is important and should be published, include a warning so those who are vulnerable can avoid it if they want.

Never use the following words:

Sane, insane, mad, crazy, nutter, loony, maniac, barmy, fruitcake, retard, psycho, schizo.

If someone refers to themselves in this way in a direct quote, think carefully before using it. It’s good to be authentic but it could still be offensive to someone else reading it. Or it could help to reinforce stigma and stereotypes. If you decide you will use it, make sure it’s clear it’s a quote.

*with thanks to Mind for sharing this content