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3. A note about terminology

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There are inherent challenges in finding ways to best describe people. Because of the diversity of approaches to defining a mental health issue or an addiction, people may identify in many different ways. Terms that define groups and individuals with disabilities evolve as a result of the social and political climate and what is considered appropriate. Terms to describe people with mental health issues or addictions can reflect underlying negative views and stereotypes, and continued inequality, or they can promote acceptance, inclusion and human rights.  

During its mental health consultation, the OHRC heard that any terms used to describe people with psychosocial disabilities should:

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

As such, where it is necessary to identify individuals, allowing people to self-identify is always a preferred approach. When describing people, consider referring to the person before the disability. Avoid terms that are clearly considered inappropriate, and if an individual objects to a term, it should not be used. Some terms generally considered appropriate from a human rights perspective include:

  • psychiatric disability
  • mental health disability
  • mental disability[24]
  • consumer/survivor[25]
  • mental health issue
  • psychosocial disability (to refer to both mental health issues and addictions)
  • substance abuse
  • substance dependence 
  • addiction or addiction disability.

This policy will refer to people using these terms.

[24] The OHRC uses this term to refer to people with mental health disabilities, not people with intellectual disabilities. In some human rights contexts, this term has been used to describe people from both groups.

[25] “Consumer/survivor” is “a term used by some people who have a mental health problem and/or who have used mental health services or programs. Some believe that they have survived a mental health problem. Others see themselves as having survived the mental health system – depending on their experiences.” See:


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