What does behavioral health mean, anyway?

My last blog post referenced those with mental illness and addiction issues under the same umbrella of “behavioral health.” A fellow blogger had the insight to question use of the term “behavioral health” which is used widely in the US but perhaps not elsewhere. She is at: https://mentalhealthathome.org.

The challenge for me is finding a term that includes mental illness and addiction in the same breath. At first glance “behavioral health” does that – include mental health and addiction diagnoses. But as my fellow blogger and friend pointed out “behavioral health” is a weird way of describing mental illness and addiction. The use of the term “behavioral health” seems to imply that all that us mental illness or substance abuse sufferers need to do is change our behavior and all will be well.

Further, the term “behavioral health” does not include the more common understanding that both mental illness and addiction are associated with or caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The chemical imbalance is clearly an illness.

While there is room for behavioral change in any illness diagnosis including cancer and heart disease, the idea that a diagnosis can be reversed through behavioral change is missing the point. If I have heart disease, I can change my diet and exercise regime. If I have cancer, I can also adopt a healthier diet and exercise. However, my diagnosis of heart disease or cancer is not defined by my behavior. It is defined by the diagnosis and prognosis of the illness itself. If you are dying of heart disease or cancer, no one says “change your behavior and all will be well.”

So why should we term mental illness and addiction as “behavioral” issues? The key to understanding mental illness and addiction is in understanding there is a chemical malfunction in the brain. Sure, you can mitigate this some with behavioral changes, but that does not mean that mental illness and addiction are explained best by our behaviors or changes to our behaviors.

What are your thoughts on using the term “behavioral health?” Is there another term you choose to use to describe mental illness and addiction?

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My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Coming up Last on the Funding List?

Has behavioral health always been the red-headed step-child in terms of funding levels for medical research and treatment?

If the statistics on mental health and addiction were more widely publicized, would we begin to see more clearly the widening funding gap between dollars to treat and cure mental illness versus research and treatment dollars dedicated toward heart disease, diabetes or cancer?  Currently, while mental health and behavioral health including the opioid epidemic and addiction pose tremendous challenges, the funds and expertise to tackle behavioral health and addiction just aren’t forthcoming at the same rate say for cancer research or funding.  What would happen if we as a society could place as much money and effort into mental health and addiction research and treatment as we do into cancer?  The projected impacts would likely be enormous.

  1. For one we would have adequate beds to treat people who need inpatient care for behavioral health or addiction. 
  2. For another, we would have adequate funding to develop psychotropic drugs and other interventions without such severe side effects as weight gain and Type II Diabetes onset and memory loss. 
  3. Additionally, we would be treating war veterans for mental health or behavioral impacts that often can go untreated or undiagnosed.
  4. Fourthly, we would have enough resources to fund a Cohort Model of support for those in a crisis or post-crisis state. 
  5. Fifthly, with more co-mingling of people with and without a behavioral health or addiction diagnosis we might be able to reduce stigma substantially.
  6. Finally and most importantly, by being proactive in our behavioral health and addiction programs in the United States, we may be able to develop awareness of early warning signs among people struggling with mental health and addiction before their symptoms become dire. 

It only follows that research for and treatment of mental illness and addiction is proportional to the level of medical challenge that is presented with these diagnoses.