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Mental Health vs Behavioral Health

When are the terms “Mental Health” and “Behavioral Health” used, and what specifically do they refer to? The field of mental health has been undergoing significant changes in recent years. When referring to the types of difficulties people face that include biological, genetic, social and environmental factors (such as depression, anxiety and stress), the terms “mental”, “psychological”, and “behavioral” are often used interchangeably.

Mental Health

For many years, the accepted terminology for the separation of health related issues between those treated in the medical community and those working on psychological and social issues were “physical health” and “mental health”. Mental health was a focus apart from, but related to physical health. This separate but related category for mental health could be seen not only in the division of the professions (medical providers vs. mental health providers), but even in the overall healthcare system. Your insurance policy, for example, likely has separate benefits for medical coverage and mental health coverage. These are often even managed by separate companies within the same insurance policy.

The inclusion of Behavioral Health

In recent decades, the term “mental health” has begun to fall out of favor. Mental illness carries such a societal stigma that people are reluctant to seek treatment. There has been a paradigm shift in the mental health world in recent years prompting a much closer integration with the medical community. This is partially driven by a greater recognition that medical issues and mental health issues are closely intertwined (not surprising, as the body is so intimately connected to the brain!) Over time, the term “behavioral health” came to refer to the middle ground between purely medical issues, and those considered within the realm of mental health. In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, there has been a sharp increase in the integration of mental health into medicine. Waves of mental health practitioners have shifted both their training and their interventions to work more effectively in a medical setting. These specialists are often referred to as “behavioral health consultants”, working hand in hand with family doctors to help address issues with a behavioral component. When more traditional services are needed, they are referred to a “specialty mental health provider”.
Regardless of the terms, the field of mental health is slowly moving to incorporate a medical and social perspective. Conversely, the field of medicine is also adopting a more social and medical viewpoint of most disorders. As the two work more closely together, there will be a division of psychological services into “behavioral health” and “specialty mental health”, in the same way that medical services are split into “primary care medicine” and “specialty medicine”.

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