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The power of words (fact sheet)

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Words can have a powerful effect on how society views people with mental health disabilities and/or addictions. The choice of words can promote acceptance and inclusion or can keep people on the margins of society.

Terms describing people with mental health disabilities have evolved over time. Two approaches are based on medical or social views of disability.

The medical approach is based on the belief that mental health concerns are based in the body and can be “fixed” or “cured” with medical help. In our consultation, many people said they did not wish to be defined by a medical condition or by their experiences with the psychiatric system because these did not capture their experiences as whole people.

While many people used medical language to describe their disabilities, some people identified medical labels as a source of victimization. Some people did not identify as having a “disability” in part because they did not consider themselves to be “disabled.”

We heard that the words chosen to describe mental health issues or addictions should:

  • reflect Canadian and international human rights protections for people with disabilities
  • appeal to people who may or may not seek medical treatment
  • be the ones used by the consumer/survivor movement
  • reflect a social versus medical approach to disability
  • reflect health, instead of focusing on impairment.

There is no consensus – and continuing debate – on terms to describe people with mental health or addiction disabilities. During our consultation, people identified themselves in many different ways. When talking about individuals, a preferred approach is always to refer to people in the way they refer to themselves. When describing people, refer to the person before the disability.

After consulting with disability groups, the Government of Canada recommended using the term “person with a mental health disability.”

Internationally and in the academic literature, the term “psychosocial disability” has started to gain more acceptance. The word “psychosocial” brings together the psychological and social/cultural aspects of disability. This term reflects a social approach to disability.

In the Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions, we refer to people in several ways. For identifying people as a group, we use “mental health disability,” “mental health issues,” “psychiatric disabilities,” “mental disability,” and “consumer/survivors.” We also refer to “addictions,” “addiction disabilities,” “people with addictions,” “substance dependence” and “substance abuse.” We use “psychosocial disabilities” to refer to both mental health issues and addictions.

For a complete copy of the Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions, visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission website at You can also find a copy of our consultation report, Minds that Matter: Report on the consultation on human rights, mental health and addictions.