Language You Might Encounter


Striving to be thoughtful about how we utilize these words in our day-to-day communication helps us to challenge myths around mental health, avoid minimizing the experiences of others, and promote ethical usages of terms in educational settings. It is also very important that we understand the differences between the healing-centered approach that invites all community members to play a part in combatting the widespread impacts of traumatic-stress, and the formal, clinical terminology used by mental health professionals for medical diagnoses.

Language Matters!

Explore these helpful definitions around language we may encounter in the community.  

  • Survivor 

    An identity used by many people who have experienced and surmounted some form of traumatic experience. Not tied to a clinical diagnosis, ‘survivor’ is a professional and appropriate term for instructors to use when referring to individuals who have disclosed to them or utilize this identity publicly (SAMHSA Trauma & Justice Strategic Initiative, 2014). 

  • Victim 

    This term identifies an individual who has experienced a crime and is considered as such within the criminal justice system. As many traumatic interpersonal abuses coincide with crimes in our legal system, individuals may be referred to using ‘victim’ language within system-based discussions and as a requirement in legal proceedings. While instructors should generally avoid this terminology when referring to community members, it is ok to mirror their language if they utilize this term to refer to themselves (COVA 2017). 

  • Resiliency 

    Is the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It is a skill defined by behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. This is a clinical terminology that can also be used more widely to express an individual or community’s ability to move through difficult experiences (Palmiter et al., 2012). 

  • Advocate 

    Advocates offer independent support to ensure the person they are supporting is taken seriously and their rights are being respected. They amplify the concerns of the person they are supporting, and do not offer their own opinions or advice, but, rather, help equip a person with the tools they need to make an informed decision within a given situation and system. Note: Some advocates are confidential, while others are not! (Age UK) 

  • Confidentiality 

    Is a legal category that protects the privilege of an individual to seek help by speaking to an advocate or support person without necessitating further disclosure to other involved parties (See: DU Responsible Employee).  

    Not all support parties on campus are confidential.  

    For example, faculty members are required to report their knowledge of certain types of student disclosures to the appropriate institutional office, while a confidential CAPE advocate, HCC health provider, or anonymous hotline does not. 

    Confidential DU Resources: Employee Assistance Program (EAP), CAPE advocates, clinical providers and medical staff (HCC) 

  • System vs Community-Based Services 

    A system-based service is one that is accountable to national, state, local, or institutional laws and protocols.  A community-based service operates independently and determines its own policies and services with respect to mandatory legal parameters. Often, both types of services are used in tandem to provide holistic and wrap-around support for individuals (Gentile-Mathew, 2021). 

  • Stress

    Our physiological and/or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave, and occurs along a spectrum from everyday to traumatic. Everyone experiences stress, and unusually high or sustained levels of stress can strongly impact us even when they are not traumatic (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2020).

    To explore further research around the impacts of stress on student learning, check-out this article by Dr. Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, Cognitive Load, Mental Health, and Learning Under Stress. 

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) 

    A clinical diagnosis that, according to the APA, denotes a “disorder that may result when an individual lives through or witnesses an event in which they believe that there is a threat to life or physical integrity and safety...the symptoms are characterized by (a) reexperiencing the trauma in painful recollections, flashbacks, or recurrent dreams or nightmares; (b) avoidance of activities or places that recall the traumatic event, as well as diminished responsiveness, with disinterest in significant activities and with feelings of detachment and estrangement from others; and (c) chronic physiological arousal, leading to such symptoms as an exaggerated startle response, disturbed sleep, difficulty in concentrating or remembering, and guilt.” Only a mental health professional can diagnose PTSD (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2020). 

  • Compassion Fatigue (Secondary/Vicarious Trauma) 

    As helping professionals in education, we are constantly exposed to and impacted by not only our own experiences, but also those of our colleagues and students. These impacts can sometimes result in a cumulative type of stress called compassion fatigue, or vicarious/secondary trauma. A healing-centered approach highlights the ways in which many community members who support others also experience strain due to the regular or prolonged fielding of difficult, high-intensity, or even traumatic experiences of others. Trauma impacts communities with a ripple effect, so monitoring our own capacities, learning emotional regulation skills, drawing compassionate and sustainable boundaries, and understanding that the impacts we experience are completely normal, are all ways to help offset compassion fatigue and be attentive to centering our own self-care. (Gentile-Mathew, 2021) 

  • Trigger

    A trigger is an internal or external stimulus that activates emotional arousal (usually dysregulation). A trauma trigger prompts recall of a previous traumatic experience-the stimulus itself need not be frightening or traumatic and may be only indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident, such as a scent or a piece of clothing. This experience is extremely affective both emotionally and physiologically, prioritizing the survival parts of your brain and impacting your cognitive, physical, and emotional functions (Flynn, 2018). 

  • Emotional Dysregulation 

    When stressors of certain types push us outside of our window of tolerance, and we become stressed in a way that neurobiologically prompts us to over- or under-function. See: Window of Tolerance 

  • Coping Skills 

    Tools that individuals can use to combat emotional dysregulation and reenter or stay within our window of tolerance; “cognitive and behavioral strategies to 1) manage the demands of a situation when these are appraised as taxing or exceeding one’s resources or 2) to reduce the negative emotions and conflict caused by stress,” (APA Dictionary, 2020). Coping skills are not inherently positive or negative, and the efficacy of different tools depend heavily on the individual and situation. Examples of constructive coping skills including grounding tools like breathing exercises and visualizations, physical exercise, and actions like drinking water or utilizing fidget tools. Coping mechanisms might also include behaviors like substance misuse, self-harm, or antisocial behaviors (Gentile-Mathew, 2021). 

  • Accommodations (Formal) 

    Academic accommodations are reasonable modifications or services, as determined via the formal process through the Disability Services Program (DSP), that give a student with a disability an equitable opportunity to benefit from the educational process. Faculty should only implement accommodations approved by the DSP staff. The DSP staff will provide students with the ability to send a Letter of Approved Accommodations (LOAA) through the office’s software system that describes approved classroom accommodations. 

    Accommodations can be in the form of academic adjustment or modifications such as extended time for test taking or completing course work; substitution of specific courses to meet degree requirements; modification of test taking or performance evaluations so as not to discriminate against a person’s sensory, speaking or motor impairments, unless that is what is being tested. Accommodations can also take the shape of auxiliary aids and services such as qualified sign language interpreters, note taking assistance, screen readers, braille, large print, electronic formats of print materials, and adaptive equipment (Disability Services Program, 2021).  

    Additional information for faculty working through the student disability accommodation process can be found in the “Blue Folder” located in the Resources section of the Faculty & Staff tab on the DSP website. 

  • Informal Arrangements 

    Faculty may ask for verification (e.g. doctors’ note; receipt from medical center) from students requesting a minor arrangement such as a make-up exam or assignment extension for a temporary, minor illness or injury (e.g., colds/flu, broken hand/arm). 

    Note: An informal arrangement is not considered an accommodation. Only the DSP can grant accommodations. If it appears that a more formal accommodation may be necessary, faculty should refer the student to DSP. Whenever students disclose a disability, or the need for a disability-related accommodation, they should be referred to DSP. For an injury, illness or temporary impairment that creates increased challenges for the student with an expected or actual duration of 2 weeks or longer, faculty can refer the student to DSP for possible short-term accommodations (Disability Services Program, 2021). 

  • DU Responsible Employee 

    DU community members (including all faculty and staff) who have the obligation to report certain types of disclosures they receive from students to the appropriate channels within the institution.

    A majority of staff and faculty at DU are not confidential parties, and are obligated to report these incidences to the appropriate office as a Responsible Employee.  

    The University requires all Responsible Employees to immediately report any conduct which could implicate the University’s Comprehensive Discrimination and Harassment Procedures or Title IX Sexual Harassment Procedures to the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. When reporting as a Responsible Employee, the report must be made by contacting the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX at or using this online form. If you have any questions, please contact the Associate Vice Chancellor of Equal Opportunity and Title IX/Title IX Coordinator at 


    Non-Confidential, Responsible Employees include (but are not limited to): Members of the Board of Trustees, Chancellor, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, Senior Vice Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, Vice and Associate Provosts, Deans, Directors, Department Chairs, Campus Safety personnel, Athletics & Recreation personnel, Student Affairs & Inclusive Excellence personnel, Resident Assistants, Faculty and Staff, Graduate Teaching Assistants, and Advisors to student groups (including those who are not otherwise employees of the University; e.g. fraternity or sorority advisors).