Behavioral Health

Public Domain image / Wikimedia Commons

I first sought help for what ended up being diagnosed (many, many years later) as bipolar in 2001. At that time I went to a “mental health” clinic. I was diagnosed with depression, a “mental illness”. After the disastrous results that came from taking the SSRI that I was prescribed I stayed away from “mental health” for as long as possible.

Just a couple of years ago, at the emphatic insistence of my spouse, I decided to give “mental health” another go. Having not really kept up with what was going on in the field, I was a little surprised to wind up in a “behavioral health” clinic. It was a little surreal to me. What had happened to “mental health”?

I write about stigma all of the time. I rail against stigma. I try to eliminate stigma. I once just about got fired from a job in ministry for posting “fuck stigma” on my Facebook page (I ended up quitting shortly thereafter in part because of that event). That’s how strongly I feel about stigma. Stigma is poisonous. Stigma kills. Stigma can go die in a fire.

“Mental health” is a stigmatized term. “Mental illness” is a stigmatized. That’s a real thing. At some point it was decided by well-meaning “mental health” professionals that the phrase needed to be changed to something with less stigma baggage, and so in many places, including the clinic I go to now, “mental health” became “behavioral health”.

The reason for this, it seems, is two fold. First, it is a less stigmatized phrase. Second, it is a little more of an inclusive phrase. Issues like addiction fall more under the heading of “behavioral health” than “mental health” according to people who know better than me.

I’m going to be blunt: I don’t care why “behavioral health” became a thing. I hate it.

While “mental health” may be stigmatized, I’m not convinced that the language is the issue there. People don’t like to talk about psychological issues. The entire field is stigmatized. The presence of mental illness, no matter what terminology you use, is stigmatized in our society. It is scary. It denotes weakness. We don’t want to talk about it. We just want it to go away.

“Behavioral health” does not solve that problem. Instead it takes something that is a physiological and psychological issue and, through the magic of words and their meaning, makes it a moral failing. Behavior is something that can be controlled. Behavior can be shaped. Behavior can be taught. When people have behavioral issues they are “bad”. “Behavioral health” takes me right back the experience of feeling ontologically wrong.

Now experts will disagree with me on this. They will even be right. I don’t care. That is the cultural perception of the word. That is my perception of the word. While “mental health” may be a stigmatized phrase based on its history, “behavioral health” comes with stigma pre-packaged in the name itself.

I don’t mind talking about mental health and mental illness. I prefer the term “brain health” but, at least for me, those two phrases are interchangeable.

But “behavioral health”? That one is indefensible. That one is irredeemable.

“Behavioral health” needs to just go away.


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