The Mental Health Jargon Buster

Accessing mental health services can be overwhelming. On top of the muddle of feelings we’ve got going on, we also find ourselves grappling with jargon. Someone might refer us to an SPA, who contact IAPT, who refer us to CMHT where we end up with a CPN as our CCo.

It sounds like gobbledygook and makes about as much sense as someone telling us that they’re referring us to the dancing turtle who might then refer us onto the talking lizard. We’re exhausted, run-down, and scared. Our brain isn’t functioning well enough to translate acronyms or learn new words. We want to know what’s happening in plain English.

So, we’ve jargon-busted 100 different mental health terms and acronyms. It’s worth being aware that different trusts within the NHS, and private companies, might use slightly different terms. Additionally, all of these definitions are based on the UK mental health system. Although many terms are likely to be universal, we can’t guarantee that they’ll be identical.

The Mental Health Jargon Buster


Sometimes, our symptoms come on quickly and severely; they’re ‘acute’. They usually respond well to treatment and last for a shorter time than chronic symptoms.

‘Acute’ can also describe mental health inpatient wards. People who stay on acute inpatient wards are likely to be there for days or weeks as opposed to months or years.

Adult Mental Health Service (AMHS)

Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS) usually provide mental healthcare for those aged 18-65. There can be some local differences to this age range, for example, in some areas, adult mental health services work with young people from the age of 16, whereas others might start from the age of 25.


When we’re unwell, we’re not always able to express our wants, needs, and opinions in a way that enables us to feel heard. Communicating with health professionals can be daunting, but advocates are there to support us. They build a relationship with us and work to understand what we’re trying to communicate. If we’d like them to, they can speak to our health team on our behalf and/or sit alongside us to support us to speak to them ourselves.

Affective Disorder

‘Affective disorders’ involve extreme highs and lows in mood. Depression and bipolar disorder are both examples of affective disorders.


When we live with alexithymia, we often struggle to identify and describe our emotions.

Allied Health Professionals (AHP)

Healthcare workers with specific training who aren’t nurses or doctors would class as Allied Health Professionals (AHPs). It’s an umbrella term for 14 different health professions (in the UK) including art, drama, and music therapists, occupational therapists, and paramedics.


Anhedonia is when we stop enjoying things that we used to enjoy or find pleasurable. It can also mean that we struggle to remember things that we used to enjoy doing.

Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP)

Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHPs) are approved by social services to make legal decisions when a person is detained under the Mental Health Act.

Assertive Outreach Team (AOT)

Assertive outreach teams (AOTs) are usually linked to community mental health teams. They’re active in some areas, but others no longer have them. Usually, they work with those of us who’ve spent lots of time in and out of hospital, or who’ve struggled to stay engaged with community mental health teams. We might have problems such as homelessness, substance abuse, or violence, on top of our mental illness.


Beta-blockers are medications which can be used to help reduce our levels of anxiety.


In the context of mental health and mental illness, ‘capacity’ describes our ability to make decisions for ourselves. If we don’t have capacity, then we might struggle to understand or remember information about a decision, use the information to make a decision and/or communicate our decision.

Living with mental illness doesn’t mean that we automatically lack capacity, neither does making bad decisions. But sometimes, our mental illness reaches a point where we do lack capacity for a while, and in these circumstances, other people might make decisions for us, in our ‘best interests’.

Care Coordinator (CCo)

When we access mental health services, we might be assigned a care coordinator (CCo). They help us to navigate the system and access the support that we need from health and social care services and to connect with our local community.

Care Pathways

Care pathways describe sequences of support. We can picture them as a flow chart or road map. Several mental health trusts have ‘pathways’ set up for different situations and conditions, which direct and inform our care.

Care Plan

A care plan is a document which lays out the support that we need, are receiving, and/or are going to receive.

Care Programme Approach (CPA)

If we’re supported by a Care Programme Approach (CPA), then we will usually have a care coordinator who manages our care plan, and our treatment should be reviewed regularly (at a minimum once a year).

Care Quality Commission (CQC)

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulate healthcare within the UK. They inspect and monitor health and social care providers to ensure that they operate at the standard needed. Following each inspection, they rate the performance of each provider in different areas, before giving them an overall score and suggesting things that they could to do to make improvements where needed.

If we have concerns about our care, then we might choose to contact the CQC and ask them to investigate our concerns.


A caseload is the number of people that a health professional has under their care at any one time. For example, our care coordinator might work with 39 other people as well as us, so they would have a caseload of 40.

Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)

CAMHS stands for Child Adolescent Mental Health Service(s). They usually work with young people up to the age of 18, who live with significant mental health, emotional or behavioural challenges. In some areas, they might support young people up to 16 or 25.


A ‘chronic’ mental illness is one which lasts longer-term or could be described as ‘ongoing’.

Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG)

Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) decide which services are needed in a particular area, and then commission them. On occasion, healthcare workers might need to speak to the CCG to ask for funding for a particular course of treatment for us.


A clinician is a health professional who’s directly involved in patient care, such as a community psychiatric nurse or a psychologist.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that helps us to identify links between our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and actions. It can help us to manage our mental health in a safe, effective way.

Community Mental Health Team (CMHT)

Community Mental Health Teams (CMHTs) are teams of healthcare workers who work in the community (ie. outpatient support). They work with those of us who have more complex mental health needs. CMHTs have staff from lots of different professions, allowing us to access more specialist support as needed.

Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN)

A Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) is a mental health nurse who sees people in the community. They might see us in a mental health clinic, at a GP surgery, in our own home, or even somewhere like a local library.

Community Team

A community team is a team who works ‘in the community’ as opposed to a team who works on a ward in a hospital.

Community Treatment Order (CTO)

If we’ve been detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act, then we could be discharged under a Community Treatment Order (CTO). CTOs allow us to remain at home and receive treatment in the community, but only under certain conditions. If we don’t meet the conditions of our CTO, then we might have to go back into hospital for our safety or the safety of other people.


If we have comorbid medical conditions, then it means that we have two who more diagnoses or conditions at the same time. For example, we could have anxiety and depression.

Complementary Therapy

Complementary therapies aren’t part of ‘conventional’ medical care, but can still be helpful. They include things like yoga, acupuncture, homoeopathy, osteopathy or herbal medicine. It’s always worth bearing in mind that if we take certain herbal medicines, such as ‘St. John’s Wort’, then they can interact with some psychiatric medications, so it’s something that we need to be careful about and make our doctor aware of.


Health professionals are bound by confidentiality. This means that they can only share our information if we’ve given permission for them to do so. They might be able to share our information within their team, for example, if we see a nurse and a support worker then they might both be able to read our notes. But they can’t legally chat about us with the local postman. Confidentiality exists between services, too. Mental health services can’t usually share information with another organisation, such as a charity, without our explicit permission.

Crisis Resolution Home Treatment (CRHT)

Crisis Resolution Home Treatment Teams (CRHTs) support us on the phone or in our home if we’re experiencing a mental health crisis. Usually, support ifrom CRHTs is short-term and intensive. Home Treatment Teams (HTTs) or Home-Based Treatment Teams (HBTT) are alternative names for CRHTs.

Crisis Team

Crisis services usually operate 24/7. If we’re under a mental health team, then we will should have the phone number for our local crisis team. We can ring them and ask for support when we need to.

Day Patient

Some mental health hospitals offer day patient support for some diagnoses. Day patients usually spend weekdays in hospital, receiving support in the same way that an inpatient might, but go home of an evening.

Depot Injection

Some mental health medications are delivered by injection and absorb into the body over time. This is called a depot injection. It can work well for us if we struggle to take our medication regularly.


Being ‘detained’ under the Mental Health Act is another way of saying that we’re being ‘held’ under the Mental Health Act.

Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual is a guide that many clinicians use to classify mental disorders. (Reference DSM)

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is a type of talking therapy that can help us to manage intense emotions.

Dual Diagnosis

If we live with a diagnosed mental illness alongside substance and/or alcohol misuse, then we can be described as having ‘dual diagnosis’.


Dysthymia is another word for persistent depressive disorder.

Early Intervention

When illnesses are diagnosed and treated early on, it can be described as ‘early intervention’. It’s a term that we might come across when reaching out for support.

Early Warning Signs (EWS)

As we get to know ourselves, we often start to learn some of our ‘early warning signs (EWS)’. These are signs that we’re beginning to struggle. Having an awareness of our personal EWS allows us to make changes when things first start to deteriorate, which can help us to stop things from getting worse.

Education Health Care Plan (EHCP)

Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP) support young people up to the age of 25 who have special educational needs, which might include some mental health needs. It’s a legally binding document, detailing our support needs, and what’s being provided to meet those needs.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is sometimes used to treat those of us with severe mental illness that hasn’t responded to other treatments.

Emotional Regulation

‘Emotional regulation’ is our ability to control our emotions. Most of us will remember a time where we were really angry but had to hold it in – that’s emotional regulation. Other examples of emotional regulation include reframing, self-soothing, distracting ourselves, watching funny videos, or going for a run.

Escorted/Unescorted Leave

As an inpatient, sometimes we have ‘leave’. ‘Escorted leave’, means that we have to have a member of staff (or sometimes a family member) accompanying us. There might be instances where we have to have a member of staff with us even if a family member is visiting. If we have unescorted leave then we can go out by ourselves. Often, we will gradually be able to go out more and more independently as our treatment progresses.


‘Euthymic’ is a term that we might read on psychiatric reports. It means that our mood is stable.

Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy used to help those of us who’ve been through difficult stuff in the past which has contributed to problems in the present, including flashbacks, distressing thoughts and images, anxiety, and depression.

Forensic Mental Health Services

Forensic mental health services work with offenders who have mental health problems both in the community and in hospital.

Formal Patient

‘Formal’ patients are detained under the Mental Health Act.


A ‘formulation’ is a summary of our history, our current problems, and any treatment and/or assessment plans going forward.


GAD-7 stands for ‘General Anxiety Disorder-7’. It’s a 7-question questionnaire measuring the severity of our anxiety.

Health Care Assistant (HCA)

Health Care Assistants (HCAs) often work on wards and in community teams. They’re not qualified nurses, but many can take observations (such as our blood pressure), offer 1:1 appointments, and help us with practical things like cooking or leaving the house.


To look ‘holistically’ at something means to look at the whole thing. In terms of mental health services, this means that our physical health, social situation, and other factors influencing our life are taken into consideration alongside our mental health.

International Classification Of Diseases (ICD)

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is sometimes used alongside, or instead of, the DSM. The World Health Organisation publish it and all revisions of it.

Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)

‘Improving Access To Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT), is an NHS programme designed to make talking therapies more accessible to adults with depression and anxiety.


If we’re an ‘informal’ patient, then we’re someone who’s in hospital voluntarily, as opposed to someone who’s detained under the Mental Health Act.

Informed Consent

Sometimes we have to make decisions about our treatment. If a professional has informed us of the facts, benefits, risks, and alternatives, of a particular treatment, and we give consent for it to go ahead, then it would class as ‘informed consent’.

Inpatient (IP)

When we’re an inpatient, we stay in hospital overnight.

Integrated Services

When mental health services are joined-up with wider health and social care services, they’re described as being ‘integrated’. It’s a key priority in England at the moment, because it allows us to receive better-coordinated support which often results in better outcomes.


An intervention is anything that’s done to affect the outcome of something. Counselling, therapy, medication, and social support would all class as interventions as they affect the overall outcome of our mental health.

Key Worker

In a mental health setting, our key worker is our point of contact with the service. A care coordinator would be a key worker. They usually help to coordinate multiple services at once. For example, they might coordinate support between mental health services, a housing organisation, social care, our GP, and a local charity.


Labile is another word that we might come across on a psychiatric report. It means ‘changing often’, so if our mood is ‘labile’ then it might be very up and down.

Lived Experience

If we’ve been through something, then we have lived experience of it. For example, if we have a diagnoses of depression then we have lived experience of depression. Sometimes mental health services employ ‘experts by experience’ to advise them on services or to give their staff a different perspective of the service.


A locum is someone who stands in for someone else who’s away. For example, if our psychiatrist went on maternity leave, then we might have a locum psychiatrist until or usual psychiatrist returns.

Mental Health Act (MHA)

The Mental Health Act is a piece of legislation (in the UK) which allows healthcare staff to treat us without our agreement if we’re not well enough to consent. In emergencies, police can detain us for up to 24 hours, or until a Mental Health Assessment is complete. The Mental Health Act has different sections, which allow medical staff to detain us for different lengths of time, and to treat us in different ways. If we don’t agree with their decision to detain us, then we can appeal via a tribunal.

Mental Health Liaison Team (MHLT)

Mental Health Liaison Teams usually work in general hospitals. They work in A&E departments and visit wards to ensure that out mental health needs are met and form a plan. The plan could be to discharge us, help us to access specialist support, see the Home Treatment Team, or admit us to a psychiatric hospital.

Mental Health Services for Older People or (MHSOP)

Most adult mental health services go up to the age of 65. After this point, we’re likely to be referred to Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP). 

Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT)

There are loads of different disciplines in healthcare, including (but not limited to), nurses, doctors, psychologists, occupational therapists, associate practitioners and healthcare assistants. A multi-disciplinary team (MDT) is a team of people who come from different disciplines. For example, we might receive support from a psychiatric nurse, a social worker, a support worker, and a psychiatrist. This would be an MDT.

Named Nurse

If we’re in hospital, then we might have a ‘named nurse’. This is the nurse who’s responsible for our care while we’re there.

National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE)

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) are responsible for providing guidance, pathways, and evidence for healthcare professionals.


If we’re ‘neurodivergent‘, then we have a neurological difference to what is typically perceived as the ‘norm’. For example, we might be autistic, have, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. Though these aren’t mental health diagnoses in their own right, people diagnosed with these conditions are more likely to need to access mental health services than the general population.


If we’re neurotypical, then we have ‘typical’ neurological development.

Observations (Obs)

When on a mental health ward, we will usually be on a level of observations, or ‘obs’. This could range from 2:1 (two staff members to one patient) or eyesight obs (where we have to be within eyesight of a staff member at all times) to 5- or 15-minute checks, to a quick check twice a day.

Confusingly, ‘obs’ can describe physical observations, too. They might include checks on our pulse, blood pressure and temperature.

Occupational Therapist (OT)

Occupational therapists empower us to regain a sense of independence and to overcome barriers that stop us from doing activities that are important to us.

Outpatient (OP)

If we receive treatment as an outpatient then we go to a hospital or clinic for an appointment, but come back home rather than staying overnight.

Patient Advice Liaison Sevice (PALS)

The NHS Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) are there to offer support and advice on issues relating to healthcare. They might help us by answering our questions, letting us know about local support groups, helping us to resolve any concerns we have, or pointing us in the direction of the NHS complaints procedure if needed. PALS might also listen to any suggestions that we have for improving a service. The NHS website has a search function to help us find our local PALS.

Peer Support Worker (PSW)

Within mental health services, Peer Support Workers (PSWs) are support workers who have lived experience of mental health problems. Though any support worker or other staff member might have lived experience, too, when recruiting PSWs, lived experience is usually an ‘essential’ part of the job specification. Sometimes we feel better understood, and find it easier to relate to, someone who’s been through something similar to us.


The PHQ-9 stands for ‘Patient Health Questionnaire-9‘. It’s a 9-question questionnaire that assesses our mood.

Primary Services

Primary services are ‘frontline’ NHS services. They’re the first services that we get in contact with when we need support (such as our GP surgery).


PRN stands for ‘pro re nata’ which is a Latin term. Put simply it means ‘as necessary’. Some medications, such as beta-blockers or sleeping tablets, are prescribed to take as and when needed.

Protective factors

Protective factors are things that help our mental health and help us to keep going more generally. For example, if we had a child or a job that helped us to stick to a regular routine and avoid self-damaging behaviours then they would be seen as ‘protective factors’.

Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU)

Psychiatric Intensive Care Units (PICUs) are hospital wards that support those with severe mental health needs. There’s often a high ratio of staff to patients, and people are usually only on a PICU ward for a short time.


A psychiatrist is a doctor who specialises in mental illness. They can diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe medication.


Psychoeducation is a mixture of psychology and education. It’s a form of therapy that teaches us, and sometimes our family/carers, about our diagnosis and skills we can use manage it.

Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP)

Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) are part of IAPT. They work with us on a short-term basis and provide different treatments such as CBT, workshops, and one-to-one support.


Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists aren’t medically trained and therefore can’t usually prescribe medication. They specialise in dealing with a range of physical and mental health problems including depression and anxiety. They often carry out assessments and might offer therapy or other support and advice.


To receive respite means to get a break. Respite services offer brief periods of rest for those living with mental illness. In some areas, there are also carers’ respite services for those who care for someone with a mental illness.

Secondary Services

Secondary services are those that we’re referred to from primary services or elsewhere. They include Community Mental Health Teams and CAMHS.


If we’re ‘sectioned’, then we’re detained under the Mental Health Act.


Self-care is the things we do to look after ourselves. It includes all sorts of things from personal care to eating to taking time out and going for a walk.

Service User

‘Service users’ is a term that describes people who use mental health services. Some of us might like it as a term, and others might prefer ‘patient’ or ‘client’.

Single Point Of Access (SPA)

In many areas, there is now a ‘Single Point Of Access’ (SPA) for mental health services. This is where multiple services have the same ‘front door’ with one set of contact information. SPA’s can then refer us on to the service most appropriate for our needs.

Supported Accommodation

If we’re well enough to live in the community, but not well enough to live independently, then we might move into supported accommodation. This allows us to live semi-independently. It’s not as restrictive as a hospital ward, but there are usually staff around to help us to cope.


SWEMWBS stands for ‘Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale’. It’s a 7-question questionnaire which monitors our general mental wellbeing.

Therapeutic Community (TC)

If we have difficulties with our relationships and mental health, then we might be referred to a therapeutic community. They are supportive environments which help us to work towards an independent life.

Trans-Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

Trans-Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a treatment for depression that involves sending magnetic pulses to specific areas of the brain.


If we’ve detained under the mental health act, and want to appeal our section, or dispute aspects of our treatment, then we can request a tribunal, where an independent panel will consider our appeal(s).


For those of us who experience things like flashbacks and/or panic attacks, there might be specific circumstances or ‘triggers’ that are likely to cause a flashback and/or panic attack.

Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)

We can use Wellness Recovery Action Plans as part of our recovery. They help us to note what ‘good’ and ‘struggling’ look like for us individually, things we can do to stay well, early warning signs, and what to do if our mental health deteriorates again. Some WRAPs also include advanced decisions in case we reach a point where we’re not well enough to make informed decisions.

Welfare Check

If have concerns about someone else’s safety, or someone has concerns about us, then we can call the police and ask for a welfare check. The police can to enter a person’s home to carry out a welfare check and take them to a place of safety if needed.

Working diagnosis

If we have a ‘working diagnosis‘ then our care team are working on the basis that we have that diagnosis, but for it to become a confirmed diagnosis, we might be waiting for a more specialist, or longer-term, assessment.

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