Mental Health Language


Below you can find a full list of terms and definitions that can aid in your understanding of mental health language.

504 Plan

A school plan based on section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. A 504 plan is less intensive than an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan), and no additional funds are provided to the school to implement it. Students who do not qualify for special education may receive supports through a 504 plan, while those who do qualify for special education will have an IEP.

Adjustment Disorder

A disorder characterized by extreme difficulty adjusting to stressful situations. Children with adjustment disorders may experience depressed mood, anxiety, or behavioral problems.

Anorexia Nervosa

An eating disorder characterized by excessive weight loss due to an intense fear of weight gain. Anorexia nervosa is more common among females than males and usually begins during adolescence or young adulthood. It is often associated with bipolar, depressive, or anxiety disorders.

Anxiety Disorder

A category of mental disorders characterized by excessive fear and anxiety. This is one of the most common types of mental disorders.

Asperger’s Disorder

A type of autism spectrum disorder characterized by poor social skills and rigid thinking patterns but without the severe language delays of autism. Asperger’s disorder is not recognized as a separate disorder in the DSM-5 (published in 2013), due to its overlap with high functioning autism, but many people still find it to be a useful term.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

A disorder characterized by distractibility and lack of focus. ADD is an older term for a disorder that is now classified as ADHD.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

A disorder characterized by distractibility and lack of focus and/or hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD have difficulty paying attention and often have difficulty sitting still, compared to most other children.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

A disorder characterized by poor social skills, rigid thinking patterns, repetitive behaviors, and language delay. Children with severe autism may have extremely repetitive behaviors and very little ability to use language, while children with high functioning autism may be quite verbal but rigid in their thinking and have difficulty relating to their peers.

Bipolar Disorder

A disorder characterized by periods of depression as well as periods of extreme happiness, irritability, or high energy. Bipolar disorder is diagnosed in children far less than it is diagnosed in adults.

Bulimia Nervosa

An eating disorder characterized by binge eating combined with behaviors that prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise. Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is more common among females than males and usually begins during adolescence or young adulthood. It is also often associated with bipolar, depressive, or anxiety disorders.

Children’s Therapeutic Services and Supports (CTSS)

A package of mental health services in Minnesota that are designed to help children with Severe Emotional Disturbance. CTSS services may include therapy and behavioral support in the home or at school.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

A type of talk therapy that emphasizes changing patterns of thought in order to allow for changes in behavior. This is the most common type of talk therapy for children as well as adults.

Cognitive Impairment

(see Intellectual Disability)

Conduct Disorder

A disorder characterized by aggression, property destruction, lying, theft, and/or serious violations of rules. Conduct Disorder is most commonly diagnosed in adolescents.


A person who is trained to provide guidance on personal, social, or psychological problems. A counselor may be a trained and licensed professional who provides a specialized service (such as a school guidance counselor) or whose role is similar to that of a therapist. Other counselors are not licensed and have a more informal role.

Day Treatment

(see Partial Hospitalization)


A false belief that is strongly maintained despite evidence to the contrary. Delusions are often associated with paranoia and psychotic disorders. Note: In children, false beliefs are often a result of immature thinking rather than a mental disorder.


A mood disorder characterized by sadness and loss of interest. In children, irritability and anger can be signs of depression.

Developmental Disability

A severe, long-term disability that may be physical, mental, or both. Examples include intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and autism spectrum disorder.


In mental health, diagnosis is made by a trained professional based on testing, direct observation, and/or behavior reported by parents, teachers, or others who are familiar with the child. Manuals used for diagnosis include the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems).

Diagnostic Assessment

This is typically the first step in providing mental health treatment. It involves face-to-face contact with the child and at least one parent or guardian. The assessment is conducted by a mental health professional and includes diagnosis and recommendations for treatment. In some situations, a diagnostic assessment from another provider may be used if it is less than six months old.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

A type of treatment that focuses on managing emotions, improving distress tolerance, and improving personal interaction skills. DBT was developed for use with adults who have personality disorders, but it is increasingly being used with adolescents and younger children as well.

Disruptive Mood Regulation Disorder

A diagnosis introduced in the DSM-5 in 2013 and characterized by frequent temper outbursts and persistent irritability.

DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)

The manual that most mental health providers use for diagnosis. The latest edition, the DSM-5, was published in 2013, replacing the DSM-IV-TR. The DSM-5 has been somewhat controversial due to changes that were made in diagnostic criteria.

Eating Disorders

A category of disorders characterized by persistent disturbance of eating, which significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning. Types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Emotional or Behavioral Disorders (EBD)

A special education category for children whose school functioning is impaired due primarily to emotional and/or behavioral problems.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

A medical diagnosis characterized by permanent birth defects that are caused when a child’s mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy. Some children with FASD have unusual facial features and severe mental impairment. Other children with FASD have a typical appearance but have functional problems, which may include poor motor skills, learning disabilities, memory problems, attention problems, and poor impulse control.


A perception of something that does not exist. Hallucinations are most often visual or auditory. Hallucinations are often associated with psychotic disorders, but could also be caused by other mental illnesses, severe stress, physical illness, or medication side effects. Note: It is common for young children to report hearing or seeing nonexistent things (such as imaginary friends), and they typically grow out of this phase.

Homicidal Ideation

Thoughts about killing another person. Homicidal ideation is always of concern and may be a sign of mental illness.

ICD (International Classification of Diseases)

A manual used by many mental health providers for diagnosis. The latest edition, the ICD-10, was published in 1990.

IEP (Individualized Educational Plan)

An educational plan that is required for students who are qualified to receive special education. Qualification is determined by school testing and may be based on intellectual, emotional, or physical disability. School staff and parents collaborate in developing the IEP, which is tailored to the student’s specific needs.

Intellectual Disability

A developmental disability characterized by below average intelligence and impaired functioning in day-to-day living skills.

IQ (Intelligence Quotient)

A measure of a person’s overall intelligence, determined by psychological testing. An IQ score of 100 is considered to be average. Most people who are tested score in the average range, which is generally considered to be from 90 to 110.

Learning Disorder

A disorder characterized by difficulty learning and using academic skills. Learning Disorders may affect reading, writing, spelling, or math. Unlike those with intellectual disability, people who have a learning disorder are often of average (and occasionally above average) intelligence.

Manic Depressive Disorder

An older term for what is now known as bipolar disorder.

Medical Assistance (MA)

Minnesota’s Medicaid program. MA is available to lower income families, and it covers some mental health services that typically are not covered by insurance. Families can apply for MA online through MNsure or can obtain a printable application from the Minnesota Department of Human Services web site.

Mental Illness

Also known as Mental Disorder. Mental illness is characterized by problems with how a person feels, thinks, or behaves. Mental illness is often distinguished from intellectual disability and other developmental disabilities.

Mental Retardation

An older term for what is now known as intellectual disability or cognitive impairment.

Mood Disorder

A category of disorders characterized by abnormally elevated or depressed mood. In the DSM-5, Mood Disorder was eliminated as a category and replaced by Depressive Disorders and Bipolar and Related Disorders.

Neuropsychological Assessment

An assessment that is designed to determine the extent of brain malfunction due to injury or neurological illness, as well as identifying (if possible) which areas of the brain may have been damaged. A neuropsychological assessment may help to clarify diagnosis and suggest strategies for treatment.

Nurse Practitioner

A nurse with a graduate degree in advanced practice nursing. Nurse practitioners may perform many of the same tasks as doctors, including diagnosis and writing prescriptions.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive, repetitive behaviors. The compulsive behaviors are aimed at reducing anxiety. Children with other disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, may also engage in repetitive behaviors.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

A form of therapy that focuses on a person’s performance of daily tasks. Many occupational therapists also work on problems with sensory processing.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

A disorder characterized by angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or spitefulness.

Outpatient Therapy

Any therapy that is provided in an office setting to an individual who does not spend the night at the facility where the therapy was provided. This is the most common therapy arrangement.

Panic Disorder

A type of anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack may include symptoms such as accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, nausea, dizziness, chills, heat sensations, fear of losing control, or fear of dying. Panic disorder is very rare in children. It typically emerges during young adulthood but may begin during adolescence.

Partial Hospitalization

A mental health program in which treatment is provided for several hours per day for several days per week to an individual who continues to live at home. It is sometimes referred to as day treatment.

Personality Disorder

A category of mental disorders that is characterized by highly unusual patterns of behavior that are persistent and inflexible. Individuals who have personality disorders may exhibit paranoia, detachment from social relationships, unstable social relationships, antisocial behavior, narcissism, or an obsession with orderliness and perfection. Personality disorders are generally not diagnosed before late adolescence or early adulthood.

Play Therapy

A type of therapy in which emotionally disturbed children are encouraged to express their feelings through play, with the guidance of a therapist.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A type of anxiety disorder characterized by continued distress caused by exposure to a traumatic event and persisting long after the traumatic event has passed. Individuals with PTSD may experience sleep disturbance, recurring memories or dreams of the traumatic event, flashbacks, or intense distress when exposed to cues that trigger memories of the traumatic event. Treatment for children who have PTSD often involves play therapy or talk therapy.

Psychiatric Assessment

An assessment conducted by a psychiatrist to clarify diagnosis and recommend treatment. A psychiatric assessment may include recommendations for medications to help with problems as well as recommendations for therapy or other ongoing treatment.

Psychiatric Hospitalization

Treatment in a hospital or hospital ward for individuals with mental illness, typically involving an overnight stay. A psychiatric hospitalization may last for several days but is always considered to be temporary. Criteria for admission include severely impaired daily functioning and/or the immediate potential to harm oneself or others.


A medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Psychological Assessment

An assessment conducted by a psychologist to clarify diagnosis and recommend treatment. Psychological assessments involve standardized tests that measure cognitive functioning, mood, and other variables. A psychological assessment may include recommendations for therapy or other treatment or referral to a psychiatrist to determine whether medications might be helpful.


A professional who specializes in the study of the mind and its functions. A clinical psychologist is a clinician with a graduate degree in psychology who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists generally do not prescribe medications.

Psychotic Disorder

A category of mental disorders characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and disorganized or catatonic behavior. Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

A disorder characterized by difficulty relating to caregivers as a result of a lack of opportunities to become attached to caregivers in the past. RAD most often occurs in children who were abused and neglected in their infant and toddler years, or who experienced frequent changes in caregivers during those years. RAD is relatively rare and is usually diagnosed in children who are five years old or younger. Treatment for RAD focuses on creating positive interactions with caregivers.

Residential Care

Mental health care that is provided on a long-term basis, 24 hours per day, in a mental health facility. Residential care is used for children who are unable to function in a home setting. Treatment plans are focused on improving functioning so the child can return home as soon as possible.

Safety Plan

A plan created by a mental health professional, parents or guardians, and the child, which identifies stressors and lists responses to those stressors that may help to keep the child’s behavior from escalating. A safety plan may list people or organizations who can be called for help.


A disorder characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and disorganized or catatonic behavior. In children, schizophrenia is rare and tends to be difficult to diagnose. Schizophrenia typically emerges between the late teens and mid-30s and is most likely to emerge when individuals are in their 20s.


Behavior that deliberately harms oneself or puts oneself at risk of harm. Examples of self-harmful behaviors include cutting, biting, scratching, head banging, pulling out hair, excessive risk-taking, substance abuse, overdosing, or self-poisoning. Self-harmful behavior is usually a sign of mental illness and should be addressed immediately.

Sensory Processing Disorder

A disorder characterized by motor clumsiness, lack of tolerance for physical contact, bright light, or certain types of clothing, food, or sounds. Sensory processing disorder is not a mental health diagnosis. Diagnosis and treatment are usually provided by an occupational therapist.

Severe Emotional Disturbance (SED)

A level of functional impairment, caused by mental illness, that qualifies a child to receive certain mental health services. This determination is made by a mental health professional through a diagnostic assessment.

Social Worker

A professional who is trained to help improve interactions between individuals and their social environment. Clinical social workers specialize in mental health and provide diagnosis, therapy, case management, and other services.

Speech Therapy

Treatment that is provided by a speech therapist to help improve communication. Speech therapists may work on speech production, pronunciation, and conversational skills. Children with little or no speech may be taught by a speech therapist to use alternative methods of communication, such as picture exchange or sign language.

Suicidal Ideation

Thoughts about killing oneself. Suicidal ideation is always of concern and may be a sign of mental illness.


A professional who is trained to offer support and guidance to individuals and families to help solve problems. Most therapists are trained as psychologists, social workers, or licensed professional counselors.


An extremely distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma can sometimes have long lasting impacts (see Posttraumatic Stress Disorder).

Treatment Plan

In mental health, a treatment plan is necessary in order for services to be provided. It is developed in collaboration by one or more mental health professionals, parents or guardians, and the child. The treatment plan contains goals as well as strategies to attain those goals. The treatment plan is typically completed at the same time as, or shortly after, the diagnostic assessment.

Crisis Services

If you or others should be in a life threatening situation or need immediate help, call 911 or use your local emergency phone number.

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