What is the right language to use when talking about individuals who have SMI?

There is wide variety in how people and organizations describe individuals who have serious mental illness (SMI). Some of these include:

  • • individuals with psychiatric disabilities
    • consumers of services, or clients
    • those with the lived experience, or peers
    • patients, or people receiving care
    • ex-patients or survivors
    • individuals living with mental illnesses


Choosing the “right” words is complex. There is no consensus on the right words to use. There may be objections and alternatives to each. The key concept to keep in mind is to recognize and refer to individuals who have SMI – first and foremost – as people. This demonstrates respect for each person’s basic humanity. Compassionate, stigma-free, person-centered words play a role in helping each person on their road to recovery. National mental health organizations such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA) also support this same approach.

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