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A Glossary of Mental Health Terminology

What exactly does "mental health" mean? We’ve compiled a glossary of the most common terms we use in our practice.

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The world of mental health has an ever-growing lexicon that can confuse lay people. Understanding these terms and their nuance is vital for communicating effectively about mental health, so we’ve compiled a glossary of the most common terms we use in our practice.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health diagnoses in the United States. It’s normal to feel anxious in certain situations. But those who suffer from an anxiety disorder feel anxious, apprehensive, and fearful in everyday situations. Anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Panic disorder

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Social anxiety disorder

  • Postpartum OCD (PPOCD)

Bipolar Affective Disorder

Bipolar Affective Disorder, commonly referred to simply as “bipolar disorder,” is a common diagnosis characterized by profound mood swings. A person living with bipolar disorder may experience manic highs and severe bouts of depression in a relatively short period.

Clinical Depression

Clinical depression refers to Major Depressive Disorder as defined in the DSM-V. The word depression used colloquially refers to an extended period of sadness or grief. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is a medical diagnosis characterized by an extended period of low mood, lack of self-esteem, and loss of interest in pursuing pleasurable activities.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapeutic intervention that focuses on changing negative thought and behavior patterns. CBT helps patients develop better emotional and behavioral responses to external stimuli. Mental health professionals often use CBT to treat anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Couples Counselor

A couples counselor is a specially licensed family counselor specializing in issues related to intimacy, communication, infidelity, and emotional connection between partners. When seeking a couples counselor, it’s crucial to find one that fits your specific needs and makes you both feel comfortable during sessions.

Coping Skill

People use coping skills as methods of dealing with discomfort and emotional turbulence. Each person has their own set of skills to tolerate or minimize upsetting situations.


The DSM-V refers to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatry Association publishes new editions of the DSM as research and best practices evolve and mental health professionals use it to classify and diagnose mental health disorders.

Lived Experience

Lived experience refers to the constellation of knowledge and understanding that a person gains from their unique experiences. Each person has a unique perspective that shapes how they interact with the world around them.

Mental Health Concern

A mental health concern is a symptom, set of symptoms, or behavior pattern that leads a person to believe that their mental health may be suffering. Those with severe mental health concerns should seek therapy and medical intervention.

Mental Hygiene

Mental hygiene refers to a set of habits that support your mental health. Good mental hygiene can help prevent mental health disturbances and lessen the severity of mental illnesses. Good mental hygiene includes a consistent sleep schedule, frequent exercise, and daily journaling or meditation.

Mental Illness

A mental illness is a broad term that refers to the diagnoses classified in the DSM-V and ICD-10. Mood disorders, personality disorders, and eating disorders are typical examples of mental illness.

Mood Disorder

A mood disorder, or affective disorder, is a subset of diagnoses that primarily concern a person’s emotional state. A psychiatrist can diagnose mood disorders and treat them through clinical and behavioral means.

Examples of mood disorders include:

  • Major depressive disorder

  • Seasonal affective disorder

  • Bipolar affective disorder

  • Postpartum depression

  • Substance-induced mood disorder


A peer is a person who shares your experience living with a mental illness or substance abuse disorder.

Protective Factor

A protective factor can be understood as the opposite of a risk factor. It decreases your chances of developing a mental illness or worsening an existing condition. A robust support system is an example of a protective factor.


A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists are qualified to medically evaluate, diagnose, and prescribe medications to mental health patients, unlike psychologists and therapists.


A psychologist is a scientist who studies and treats mental health disorders. Clinical psychologists work at the intersection of clinical knowledge, science, and theory.

They do not practice medicine but can work with those who have mental health concerns to understand and alleviate their symptoms. Psychologists may refer patients to psychiatrists for medical intervention.


Recovery is a process of positive change and healing from mental illness, crisis, substance abuse, or trauma. The first steps in recovery often involve seeking intensive medical or therapeutic treatment. Over time, individuals may need less and less intervention as they begin to lead healthy, self-directed lives. Recovery is often a lifelong process.

Risk Factor

A risk factor increases a person’s chance of developing a mental health disorder. Risk factors for mental illness range widely, from circumstantial factors such as trauma to lifestyle factors like physical exercise.

Social determinants of health

Social determinants of health are the social and economic conditions in which people live and work. Social determinants play a considerable role in the mental health of individuals and the collective health of a group.

Social determinants of health may include the following:

  • Race

  • Gender

  • Work culture

  • Transportation

  • Access to healthcare

  • Access to education


In mental health, a stigma refers to the disapproving or discriminatory attitudes regarding a person’s mental health challenges. When people internalize discriminatory attitudes towards mental health, they create a self-stigma that can negatively affect self-esteem.


Stress is a feeling of emotional and often physical tension in response to internal and external stressors.


A therapist, counselor, or clinician is a mental health professional who is licensed to help people understand and deal with their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. A therapist may refer clients to a psychiatrist for a medical diagnosis, but they may not diagnose or prescribe medicine.


Psychological trauma is an emotional response to a tragic event or series of events. Trauma is often triggered by events such as death, natural disaster, or sexual assault. Symptoms can be physical or psychological. Trauma can manifest itself in various ways and for short or long periods.

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