Glossary: Mental Health

Mental Health & Suicide Prevention Glossary

Information about mental health and suicide prevention can sometimes include language you might not be familiar with. These terms are used commonly when talking about suicide prevention.


Best Practices

Activities or programs that are in keeping with the best available evidence regarding what is effective.


Chat service

Crisis counseling provided via instant messaging.

Comprehensive suicide prevention plans

Plans that use a multi-faceted approach to addressing the problem. For example, including interventions targeting biopsychosocial, social, and environmental factors.


The principle in medical ethics that the information a patient or client reveals to a health care provider is private and has limits on how and when it can be disclosed to a third party.


A person who is using or has used a health service.


A phenomenon whereby susceptible persons are influenced toward suicidal behavior through knowledge of another person's suicidal acts.

Crisis center

A facility or call center where people going through personal crises can obtain help or advice, either in person or over the phone.

Crisis counseling

Brief counseling focused on minimizing stress, providing emotional support and improving immediate coping strategies. Like psychotherapy, crisis counseling involves assessment, planning and treatment, but the scope of service is much more specific.

Crisis hotline

A phone number people can call to get immediate emergency crisis counseling.

Crisis intervention

See Crisis counseling



People in a community who have face-to-face contact with large numbers of community members as part of their usual routine; they may be trained to identify people at risk of suicide and refer them to treatment or supporting services as appropriate.



The complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being.

Health and safety officials

Law enforcement officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and outreach workers in community health programs.


Imminent risk

A situation where a person's current risk status is believed to indicate actions that could lead to his or her suicide.


A strategy or approach that is intended to prevent an outcome or to alter the course of an existing condition (such as providing lithium for bipolar disorder or strengthening social support in a community).



The instrument or object whereby a self-destructive act is carried out (i.e., firearm, poison, medication).

Means restriction

Techniques, policies, and procedures designed to reduce access or availability to means and methods of deliberate self-harm.


Actions or techniques which result in an individual inflicting self-harm (i.e., asphyxiation, overdose, jumping).

Mental disorder

A diagnosable illness characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress that significantly interferes with an individual's cognitive, emotional or social abilities; often used interchangeably with mental illness.

Mental health

The capacity of people to interact with one another and the environment in ways that promote subjective well-being, optimal development, and use of mental abilities.

Mental health problem

Diminished cognitive, social or emotional abilities, but not to the extent that the criteria for a mental disorder are met.

Mental health services

Health services that are specially designed for the care and treatment of people with mental health problems, including mental illness. Includes hospital and other 24-hour services, intensive community services, ambulatory or outpatient services, medical management, case management, intensive psychosocial rehabilitation services, and other intensive outreach approaches to the care of individuals with severe disorders.

Mental illness

See Mental disorder.



A strategy or approach that is implemented after a crisis or traumatic event has occurred.


A strategy or approach that reduces the likelihood of risk of onset or delays the onset of adverse health problems or reduces the harm resulting from conditions or behaviors.

Prevention network

Coalitions of change-oriented organizations and individuals working together to promote suicide prevention. Prevention networks might include statewide coalitions, community task forces, regional alliances, or professional groups.

Protective factors

Factors that make it less likely that individuals will develop a disorder. Protective factors may encompass biological, psychological or social factors in the individual, family and environment.

Psychiatric disorder

See Mental disorder.


The medical science that deals with the origin, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders.


The science concerned with the individual behavior of humans, including mental and physiological processes related to behavior.

Public health

The science and art of promoting health, preventing disease, and prolonging life through the organized efforts of society.


Risk assessment

The process of quantifying the probability of an individual harming himself or others.

Risk factors

Those factors that make it more likely that individuals will develop a disorder; risk factors may encompass biological, psychological or social factors in the individual, family and environment.



Administration of an assessment tool to identify persons in need of more in-depth evaluation or treatment.

Screening tools

Instruments and techniques (questionnaires, check lists, self-assessment forms) used to evaluate individuals for increased risk of certain health problems.


The various methods by which individuals injure themselves, such as self-cutting, self-battering, taking overdoses or exhibiting deliberate recklessness.


See Self-harm.

Social services

Organized efforts to advance human welfare, such as home-delivered meal programs, support groups, and community recreation projects.

Social support

Assistance that may include companionship, emotional backing, cognitive guidance, material aid and special services.


Entities, including organizations, groups and individuals, which are affected by and contribute to decisions, consultations and policies.


An object, idea, or label associated with disgrace or reproach.

Substance abuse

A maladaptive pattern of substance use manifested by recurrent and significant adverse consequences related to repeated use. This includes maladaptive use of legal substances and illicit drugs.

Suicidal act (also referred to as suicide attempt)

A potentially self-injurious behavior with a nonfatal outcome, for which there is evidence that the person intended to kill himself or herself. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injuries.

Suicidal behavior

A spectrum of activities related to thoughts and behaviors that include suicidal thinking, suicide attempts, and completed suicide.

Suicidal ideation

Self-reported thoughts of engaging in suicide-related behavior.


A term that encompasses suicidal thoughts, ideation, plans, suicide attempts, and completed suicide.


Death from injury, poisoning, or suffocation where there is evidence that a self-inflicted act led to the person's death.

Suicide attempt

See Suicidal act.

Suicide attempt survivors

Individuals who have survived a prior suicide attempt.

Suicide survivors

Family members, significant others, or acquaintances who have experienced the loss of a loved one due to suicide. Sometimes this term is also used to mean suicide attempt survivors.

Suicide warning signs

Indications that an individual is at risk for suicide.

Adapted from the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for action. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2001

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