Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Behavioral health versus mental health

Does what we call it influence how people think about it?

The terms "behavioral health" and "mental health" are often used interchangeably. But, do they really mean the same thing? I've made two short lists below as I've tried to work out what's good, and not so good, about the term "behavioral health," and am very curious to hear what you think.

Three things I like about the term behavioral health:

-It's a way of being inclusive. Behavioral health includes not only ways of promoting well-being by preventing or intervening in mental illness such as depression or anxiety, but also has as an aim preventing or intervening in substance abuse or other addictions.

-Perhaps the term "behavioral health" is less stigmatized than "mental health," so a kinder, gentler name opens doors that might otherwise remain closed for folks.

-Behavior is an aspect of identity that can be changed, so "behavioral health" might be a more hopeful concept for those who experience mental illness or addiction and who may have felt that these diseases were permanent parts of their lives.

Three things I don't like about the term behavioral health:

-The frame of behavioral health places the onus on the individual to change, rather than examining and working to change external, environmental factors that influence an individual's well-being., such as poverty, discrimination, or abuse.

- In a related vein, behavioral health doesn't seem to imply that there are root causes for what we see as behavior. Within the field of suicide prevention, for example, we don't just want to prevent the behaviors that lead to suicide, but the underlying causes of those behaviors.

-Finally, "behavioral health" seems like a concept that was created by someone who works for an insurance company, rather than someone who has struggled with mental health issues.

I'd love to hear what you think. Do you find the term behavioral health to fit the work you're doing, either as a provider/practitioner or a patient/consumer/client? Do you think it helps or hurts the field? My friend and colleague suggested we might use a term like "perceptual health," as sometimes errors in the way we perceive a situation (or ourselves) lead to actions that do not help us. What term would you prefer? If you could, what would you rename "mental health"?

Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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