What is the Difference Between Behavioral Health and Mental Health?
December 29, 2020
December 29, 2020
With all that is thrown at everyone lately, we are happy people are becoming more aware of their own mental health and that society is more accepting of individuals who experience challenges associated with it.
Interestingly, this seemingly new focus on “self-care” sometimes has more to do with behavioral health than mental health. While the terms are often tossed around interchangeably, they have quite different meanings. More importantly, they have different approaches.
To answer questions around behavioral health and mental health, we turned to one of our in-house experts, Dr. Alexandra Ament, from Hopebridge’s autism therapy centers in Denver, Colorado. As a licensed clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), her background provides a well-rounded view on these areas, as well as how they directly affect children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Behavioral health is the “big picture.” It’s a broader category that encompasses mental health, along with a lot of other areas. There is overlap between many of the subsets within behavioral health, which is why it can be confusing.
As a whole, behavioral health focuses on overall wellbeing. It covers the psychological state – which is where mental health fits in – but also includes actions, habits and the medical perspective.
Behavioral health is approached from various angles. It is a multidisciplinary approach with a number of providers who can get involved. From this view, we don’t just treat the issues, we work to prevent them. It includes testing, diagnosing and treating a challenge, plus recovery and follow-up. Examples include promoting healthy lifestyles in the community, general counseling and promoting healthy relationships through options like marriage counseling. Applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) is often part of the approach for children with autism.
Now for mental health, which centers around the psychological pieces. Diagnoses that fall into the mental health category mostly cover the emotional state or intrusive and negative thoughts. Examples include anxiety, depression, personality disorders and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Some behavioral disorders like conduct disorders and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can also fall under mental health.
The approach for mental health focuses mostly on treatment. This looks like therapy with a psychologist, talk therapy with a therapist, and connecting with a psychiatrist for medication.
Many of the current resources available lump autism and other developmental disabilities into the mental health category, but I see them as a separate category under behavioral health. ASD is something that cannot be prevented and it is a disorder the individual will have throughout a lifetime, which requires a unique approach that is different from how most mental health conditions are treated.
Thankfully, it looks like the field is starting to move autism toward the direction of behavioral health, since the current recommendation for treatment is a different method to support those with autism than it would be for someone with solely a mental health disorder.
This is especially true at Hopebridge, where behavioral health is ingrained in everything we do. Our 360 Care options provide a range of interdisciplinary services. It starts with a diagnostics team of licensed doctoral-level providers. BCBAs and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) manage the evidence-based behavioral work of ABA, then we often combine that with speech, feeding and occupational therapy. Add in parent training, and this blend of services offers more for our children and families than what the typical mental health provider could offer.
At the same time, Hopebridge’s services do not ignore the mental health piece that can influence a child’s overall behavioral health, since there is a good bit of overlap. For instance, during our Grand Rounds process, some behavior analysts have brought up mental health concerns in our patients, such as anxiety. Others have wondered if certain behaviors fall along the autism spectrum or if the child may have true obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In these cases, the team may suggest referring families out to see a psychologist for further evaluations, in addition to remaining in ABA therapy. Our BCBAs will then coordinate care and integrate behavioral strategies that may also help to address the mental health issue.
We also consider the caregivers’ mental health. For instance, what have parents gone through and how are they dealing with the autism diagnosis and therapy process in their own lives? Viewing these pieces affects parent training and how the family takes data when they are at home.
By looking at the larger behavioral picture, the team of specialists can focus on our children’s behaviors and provide ongoing support for every piece that needs to be addressed. The mental health side might also need to be addressed for some if there are concerns, but it isn’t always the main focus.
It can be misleading when autism is grouped into mental health. When looking at it that way, parents may think ASD is something that can be prevented or can “go away,” but that is not the case. In some situations, it can even leave parents feeling guilty. Our kids can show a lot of improvement, but they will always have autism and some unique challenges associated with it.
Placing attention on behavioral health starting at a young age is key, especially as it relates to autism. If the child does not get a diagnosis early in life, the child cannot get services early either. Then, even if the family pursues a diagnosis but not additional services, the child will still be at a loss.
Research shows that children can make the greatest strides in development with early intensive behavioral interventions (EIBI) like ABA therapy until around age 5. If they miss this window, it does not mean they can’t make improvements later in life, but they may be held back from reaching their full potential and catching up to peers developmentally.
Early intervention also gives parents a nice amount of time to learn what to anticipate over the years. We see different things at different stages in life for individuals with autism. If caregivers can get educated early, they can better prepare, rather than feeling like something new is always being thrown at them.
In the end, failure to address behavioral health at an early age prevents these children from leading their best possible lives, which is our ultimate goal for kids and families.
Are you ready to make a stronger push for your child’s behavioral health? If you believe your child may show signs of autism or developmental delays, don’t wait to get help. Contact the Hopebridge team to quickly arrange a diagnostic assessment and/or therapy evaluations to put your child’s health – and future – at the forefront.