UMHAN advocates for the social model use of language and terminology to describe mental health.

By this we mean that people are not disabled by their medical condition, but by the attitudes and structures of society. In our context, this might mean:

  • Processes for application, submission of work and progression
  • Accommodation
  • Student finance
  • Negative attitudes of staff
  • A lack of good role models and positive representation of students with mental health conditions


There has been much recent debate within the sector about the inconsistent use of language when describing mental health, with an impact on data such as outcome measurement and evidence for successful practice.

There is no consensus by service users themselves about terminology (1). 

Key points

There has been a focus on using “wellbeing” as a generic term to cover the provision of support services and activity. This has led, in some cases, to resources being directed away from those most in need. Recognition of the interplay between mental wellbeing and mental health is needed. (2)   

Students with long-term mental health conditions meet the Equality Act definition of disability, even when this is not a term that they may use to describe themselves. Much of the individual support available to these students will come through Disability Teams and funding, such as Disabled Students’ Allowances, however they may not access this because they do not think they are eligible as they do not consider themselves disabled. Wellbeing and counselling staff may not consider their eligibility for this support and effectively signpost them, due to a lack of understanding and joined up approach.

Some students with a diagnosed mental health condition will manage their mental health well while in education; some by accessing all statutory and institutional support available, and/or some with insight and personal coping strategies. However, some students will become unwell while studying, including hospitalisation, and will require greater flexibility and more support than they may previously have been accessing.

Our use of terminology

We do not wish to label or impose descriptions on students who access support services due to their mental health, however, we recognise the need to have a consistent approach within the sector.

We do not agree with the approach of some organisations in using the word “problem” as we feel this adds to the stigma around mental health. The words “risk” and “recovery” are also loaded terms, as they are often used about individuals without understanding of their personal viewpoint of their health and wellness.

Throughout our publications and website, we will use the terms as defined by the Office for Students (3):

Mental health conditions are clinically diagnosable. They may be more or less severe and their treatment pathways vary depending on the condition.

Mental ill health is a broader term describing mental distress that may or not be related to a diagnosable mental health condition.

Wellbeing is broader still and relates to people’s thoughts and feelings about their own quality of life.


“Towards a social model of madness and distress. Exploring what service users say.” Peter Beresford, Mary Nettle and Rebecca Perring, Joseph Rowntree Foundation (accessed 12/12/19).
"Promoting Mental Health" a report by the World Health Organisation (accessed 29/01/20)
“Mental Health: Are all students being properly supported?”, Office for Students Insight Brief November 2019 (accessed 29/01/20)

University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN). c/o The Moseley Exchange, 149-153 Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8JP Tel: 07510 734544 Registered charity number: 1155038. We use cookies to improve your experience using this website.
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