Many different terms are used to describe people experiencing mental ill health. Some have negative connotations. Some have been devised by people with mental health problems to change public perceptions and challenge stigma and discrimination.

It is important to define the terms because they mean different things to different people. For instance the term 'service user' is a potentially loaded and contentious phrase, grouping together an otherwise diverse community of individuals with very different needs. Some 'users' also have strong views about the appropriateness of the term itself, believing it to have negative connotations.



Emphasises the professional nature of the relationship with the mental health professional. Most often used in the independent and social care sectors, as well as by some therapists.


Borrowed from the market place. Emphasises the concept of service users as consumers of products such as medications and care services.


Used by people no longer in contact with health care services. Also used by psychiatric services to describe someone who has been discharged from hospital.

Experts by/through experience

A more recently coined term used by the recovery movement to draw attention to expertise of people with mental health problems gained through personal experience, and their expertise about their own mental health. It is used within a participative approach to treatment that acknowledges a person's ability to work in partnership with the mental health services/professional towards their own recovery.


Widely used by health care services. Stresses the medical focus of the relationship between the person and the service.

People with mental health problems

A broad definition used by a range of agencies. Emphasises and acknowledges that the person is a person first, not a psychiatric diagnosis, and that many people experience mental distress and this may be a 'problem', not necessarily an illness.

People with experience of mental and emotional distress

An even broader definition than above that aims to be as inclusive as possible, and focuses on the experience itself rather than using the concept of 'problem' as a label.

People with a mental illness

This is a narrower definition and is often used by psychological and psychiatric services. By placing the emphasis on the term 'illness', it acknowledges the need for medical treatment.

Psychiatric survivors

A 'rights' based term used by mental health/survivor activists who assert that some forms of psychiatric treatment can be considered abusive. They campaign for reforms to end the powers of psychiatry to compulsorily detain people and enforce treatment against their will.

Service users

Popular with service providers, particularly within the public sector. Used as a generic description of the people who use mental health services.


A term often used by agencies and organisations that are seeking to draw attention to the poor quality of life for people experiencing mental health problems. Often used by carers, parents and individuals with a particular mental health problem. Disliked by some people as implying passivity and victim status.


A term used to describe people experiencing/living through mental health problems and/or the consequences of a life event - such as sexual abuse. Regarded as more empowering than the more passive 'sufferer' with its connotations of 'victim'. Often used by self-help and survivor campaigning organisations. Not to be confused with 'psychiatric survivors' (see above).


Shorthand for service users, although also used as term for people using illicit substances.