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What’s the difference between Behavioral Health and Mental Health?

I just came across a pretty interesting blog post on Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/200910/behavioral-health-versus-mental-health). It was written like 6 years ago, but that’s when the term “behavioral health” was really taking hold across the country, and within CT. Of course there are way too many people still saying “mental illness”, but at least they aren’t calling us “psychos” as often.

Anyways, when dealing with the idea that I have symptoms that can be categorized as a behavioral health disorder, I found that coming up with language that I could integrate into the way I thought about myself was important. I couldn’t say “mentally ill”… that just seemed too close to the movie “Girl Interrupted” (This scene can be triggering, do not watch if you feel uncomfortable with restraint & seclusion, swearing, or general topics related to the inhumane treatment of individuals who experience symptoms of mental health and/or substance use disorders https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT7ItsxgcMw).

Language and identity are some things that I still struggle with today. I certainly do not want to be Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted, but I was… I totally see myself in her. The problem is that I do not want to be that forever and now I find it offensive the way that some organizations, groups, and individuals refer to people who experience symptoms because it brings to mind those scenes – my past, in a way that is kind of insensitive. For me, the term “behavioral health challenges” is something that feels natural. As in, at times I could be thinking about the more difficult challenges I have overcome, while at other times I could associate it with yesterday when I was generally pissed off and I certainly overreacted to a situation that I could have breathed through.

However, I am leaning closer and closer to saying that I struggle at times with a higher level of emotional distress than what other people might experience in a similar situation. What do you think?


5 Replies to “What’s the difference between Behavioral Health and Mental Health?”

  1. VRuiz says:

    Michaela first of all, I actually love that movie. I used to watch it all the time when I was at my worst – probably because of how much I identified with Winona Ryder in that movie – someone who came from a privileged life who was then thrown into an institution after my second suicide attempt with people whose behaviors seemed much more extreme than mine.

    In my own experience, I feel totally comfortable using the phrase “mental illness” or “mentally ill” to describe myself. I truly do believe that what happens to me, through my thought processes and behaviors, is an illness that I experience. This has a lot to do with me OWNING my struggles and my identity. However, I have definitely ended my use of the word mentally ill to describe other people, due to the fact that a lot of people do not feel the same way I do about this phrasing.

    I think the language of our experiences is a truly personal experience, and I think that it is up to each individual in the community to decide which phrasing they most identify with. For me, behavioral health challenges doesn’t accurately describe the way I experience my issues, but I can see how it would describe others.

    Does this make sense?

  2. Michaela says:

    Hi Isabel,

    Yes – your reply makes sense. I completely agree that the language that we chose to use to describe our personal experiences is highly individualized. This concept is supported through the peer-reviewed literature on recovery that incorporates the perspective of individuals who experience symptoms of mental health and/or substance use disorders.

    I like how you said that you, “ended [your] use of the word mentally ill to describe other people, due to the fact that a lot of people do not feel the same way [you] do about this phrasing.” This is a uber respectful approach that I wish more people would adopt!

    Thanks for your reply!

    P.S. I am also a huge fan of Girl Interrupted… it’s just scary sometimes to reflect on how out of control I felt… and that I could have actually come across to others in a similar way as Angelina Jolie comes off in the move :/ scary stuff.

  3. Michael says:

    Hi Isabel & Michaela!

    What an insightful topic to mark my first forum post! I first want to address Michaela – You brought up a great point about the power of our words. They can have such power over not only ourselves, but other people. This has been something that has been on my mind lately; using your thoughts and words to promote wellness and positivity. I read your biography and was moved and touched by your story. You have been through so much, and serve as an inspiration to others. Thank you for sharing your personal journey with us.

    I agree that “labels” or condemning words can limit our potential – it seems in my experience that when we judge ourselves harshly and make a formal diagnosis “who we are”, then we create our life from that limited reality. (Example: I am “biploar”, so therefore i’m just doomed to be someone who ______ ) In contrast, I can see how using person centered language can create acceptance for what you may be going through, without having the weight define you. (Example: I am a person who lives with bipolar, and am successfully creating a wonderful life, etc.) I personally like the “emotional distress” terminology Michaela. 🙂

    Isabel, I love your ownership of who you are with mental health and embracing that, yet also understanding that it may not be everyone’s experience to use that language. That is a great lesson to remind myself about to make sure every person in our community feels respected and validated.

    I have not seen Girl, Interrupted in years. Now I will have to check it out. Personally, I relate to a niche movie called “copying beethoven” when it comes to my own mental health journey. It shows in an artistic way the life of Beethoven and how he used his struggles to foster his talent. A lot of great visuals, which speaks to the artist in me. Definitely youtube it if you are interested!

  4. VRuiz says:

    Aw thanks Michael! I’m definitely putting Copying Beethoven on my to-watch list. I think the connection between creativity and mental health is so underplayed, when it’s a very real and valuable connection.

  5. Luz.Feliz says:

    I know that this is an old topic but I find it very interesting. It is my opinion that using certain language to describe individuals struggling with certain things can be really tricky, and that society has been evolving in the sense that they use certain terminology for some time period and then decide that that language is not to be used any longer (example- using the word retarded, etc). As someone who has lived through what society would label a mental health and/or behavioral health challenge, I don’t like the label of either one. For me, having had ANY type of label put on me for the time that I was deeply struggling only caused me to get stuck even deeper within my own hole. I was going in and out of inpatient psychiatric hospital settings, but now looking back I feel like if my issues would have been identified as a just issues I was going through that could be temporary-not necessarily something that was turned into a mental health diagnosis or label, etc., I wouldn’t have taken so long to get back on track. I feel like society’s labels cause us to remain in the cycle of this is what’s wrong and I can’t get better. I mean, I still have really bad days, but I don’t let a label control the fact that I am in control of my life, not a doctor, not a psychiatrist, not a hospital. Some people will choose to agree, others will choose to disagree, this is only my opinion because this is what I’ve experienced personally. Now that I live without the feeling of having a label on my forehead of being in a certain category, I am the most successful I have ever been!


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