Understanding mental health jargon

Some of the language used in the NHS can be confusing, and the language used in mental health can be even more so to anyone who isn’t a trained mental health professional.

Here we have tried to provide explanations of various terms used in mental health, as well as explaining some of the abbreviations you might come across.


  • Acute - an acute illness is one that develops suddenly. Acute conditions may or may not be severe and they usually last for a short amount of time.
  • Admission beds - NHS beds that are available for people in a crisis, when care cannot be provided in their own home.
  • Advocate - an advocate is someone who helps to support a service user or carer through their contact with health services.
  • Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) - a range of health professionals that includes physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, art therapists and speech and language therapists
  • Anti-psychotic medication - medication used to treat psychosis. There are several different types of anti-psychotic medication.
  • Assertive Outreach Team (AOT) - assertive outreach refers to a way of delivering treatment. An Assertive Outreach Team actively take their service to people instead of people coming to the team.
  • Assessment - when someone is unwell, health care professionals meet with the person to talk to them and find out more about their symptoms so they can make a diagnosis and plan their care and any treatments. This is called an assessment.


  • Caldicott guardian - the person within a Trust who has responsibility for policies on safeguarding the confidentiality of patient information.
  • Care pathways - this is the route someone who is unwell follows through health services.
  • Care plan - an agreement between you and your healthcare professional to help you manage your health day to day and to help you with your recovery.
  • Care Programme Approach (CPA) - a way of assessing the needs of people with mental health problems, and coming up with a care plan that ensures they get the support they need.
  • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) - CAMHS is the name for the NHS services that assess and treat young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties. 
  • Clinical governance - a system of procedures through which NHS organisations are accountable for improving quality and safeguarding high standards to ensure that patients receive the highest quality of care.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - this is a way of helping people to cope with stress and emotional difficulties by encouraging them to make the connections between how we think, feel and behave.
  • Commissioning - the process by which commissioners decide which services to buy and which provider to buy them from. Most mental health services are commissioned by integrated care boards (ICBs).


  • Dual diagnosis - when two or more problems or disorders affect a person at the same time.


  • Early intervention service (EIS) - a service for people experiencing their first episode of psychosis. We know that early detection and treatment are key to recovery.


  • Forensic services - services that provide support to people with mental health problems who have committed criminal offences.
  • Formal patient - a formal patient is a person who has been detained in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act (1983).


  • Independent sector - voluntary, charitabl, and private care providers.
  • Inpatient services - services where the service user is accommodated on a ward and receives treatment there from specialist health professionals.
  • Integrated services - jealth and social care professionals (such as social workers) working together in one team to provide a comprehensive range of support.
  • Intervention - another word for treatment. An intervention could be medication, a talking therapy, or an hour spent with a volunteer.


  • Mental Health Act (1983) - the Mental Health Act (MHA) is a law that allows for the compulsory detention of people in hospital for assessment and treatment of a mental illness. Health workers use the law when they believe it will be a risk to you or others if you are not in hospital.
  • Multi-disciplinary team (MDT) - a team made up of a range of different professionals who combinine their skills to help people.


  • National institute for Health and care excellence (NICE) - an organisation responsible for providing guidance on best practice and the prevention and treatment of ill health.
  • Non-executive director (NED) - a member of the Trust’s board who represents community interest and uses their knowledge and expertise to help improve services. They are responsible for ensuring the Trust is fully accountable to the public.


  • Older adults - adults aged over 65.
  • Outpatient services - services provided to someone who comes to a hospital for treatment, consultation and advice but who does not require a stay in the hospital.
  • Overview and scrutiny committee - a local authority committee responsible for looking at the details and implications of decisions about changes to health services.


  • Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) - they provide support, advice and information to service users and their families. They can also tell you how to complain about a service and can explain the Trust’s complaints procedure.
  • Primary care - health services that are the first point of contact for people with health concerns. Examples include GP surgeries, pharmacies, local dentists and opticians.
  • Psychiatric intensive care unit (PICU) - a locked ward where some people detained under the Mental Health Act may stay. They stay in the unit because they have been assessed as being at risk to themselves or others on an open inpatient ward.
  • Psychosis - A mental state in which someone may show confused thinking, think that people are watching them, and see, feel, or hear things that other people cannot.


  • Recovery - in mental health, recovery is the process of rebuilding a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life with a diagnosis of mental health problems.
  • Rehabilitation - a programme of therapy that aims to restore someone’s independence and confidence and reduce disability.
  • Residential and nursing homes - provide care for vulnerable adults who can no longer be supported in their own homes. Homes may be run by local councils or independent organisations.


  • Secondary care - specialist mental health services usually provided by a Mental Health Trust. Services include support and treatment in the community as well as in hospitals.
  • Sectioning - when someone is sectioned it means they are compulsorily admitted to hospital.
  • Social inclusion - ensuring that vulnerable or disadvantaged groups are able to access all of the activities and benefits available to anyone living in the community.
  • Stakeholder - anybody who has an interest in an organisation, its activities and achievements.


  • Talking Therapies - Talking therapies, or psychological therapies, are effective and confidential treatments delivered by fully trained and accredited NHS practitioners. They can help with common mental health problems like stress, anxiety and depression.