Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health, the wording is important

By | July 25, 2017

Recently, I have been hearing a conundrum concerning how should we be referring to the body of work around behavioral health. There is a growing number of people that think we should be referring to this area as mental health as to denote that there is a true clinical condition. This view is absolutely correct, except for it assumes that the word behavioral is referring to only mental conditions that have historically fallen into the clinical realm.

When we think of behavioral health, we need to think about it in much broader terms. As human beings, we have been gifted with individuality. This individuality leads each of us to behave differently and think differently. How I interact with someone is as important as the topic of interaction. We spend a great deal of time in the business world focusing on the profiles of the workforce in order to be more productive as teams. We seem to not want to do this same type of work as we think about working with those we serve in healthcare. The principles are exactly the same. A behavioral component is paramount to how we improve interactions with each other and thus improve our relationships.

Another component of behavioral health is the concept of behavioral economics. How do we behave when it comes to purchasing, how do we think of value, what is important to us as individuals, and how do I want my interactions with others to go, are all questions within this concept. There is a whole body of science around behavioral economics which includes psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

Obviously mental health is also a component of behavioral health and should not be minimized. As we focus on delivering value to those we serve, we must take all these components of behavioral health into account.

Being specific about what we mean when we choose our words is very important. What behavioral health means to me might not be the same as what it means to you. Instead of trying to come up with specific definitions that all agree on for each word we use, it might be better just to clarify what we mean as we use them and remember that others might be using the same term to mean something completely different. It is better to ask for clarity than to make the assumption that each is using the same meaning for a common term. I see this play out time and time again as we discuss population health and the shift to value. Those terms have such different meanings depending on the lens through which you are looking.

Let’s not argue over definitions, but be mindful of the different meanings the same word can have.