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As the stigma around behavioral health (BH) decreases and insurance coverage expands, more people are getting the care they need and talking about it openly. That's a real win for individuals, their families, and society at large. To help healthcare providers and patients better understand common terms in behavioral health, I’ve created the following glossary:

Behavioral Health Terms (in alpha order)

Assessment/initial assessment - An assessment is a professional, comprehensive, and individualized review of child/family/patient needs that is conducted when services are first sought from a mental/BH professional (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, etc.). The assessment of the patient includes a review of physical and mental health, intelligence, school performance, family situation, legal situation, behavior in the community and several other areas. An assessment also evaluates the strengths and resources of the patient. Any decisions about treatment and supports should be made by the patient and BH professional together.

Behavioral health - As a discipline, BH refers to mental health, psychiatric, marriage and family counseling, and addictions treatment, and includes services provided by social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, neurologists and physicians.1 BH includes both mental health and substance use, encompassing a continuum of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery support services.2

Case management - Case management is a service that helps people arrange for appropriate services and supports (e.g., health, mental health, educational, vocational, transportation, respite care, housing, recreational, etc.). Case managers typically organize and coordinate services and supports for patients with mental/BH problems, often including their families. While numerous case management models exist, case management can involve assessment of patient needs, development of service plans, contact with service providers on patient’s behalf, and work with the patient and/or family to facilitate access to needed services.

Client-centered therapy – Client-centered therapy is an approach to therapy which emphasizes acceptance of the client and unconditional positive regard.

Clinical psychology – Clinical psychology is one of the largest sub-disciplines of psychology. Clinical psychologists work in hospitals, clinics, and private practice and their main concern is the diagnoses and treatment of learning and emotional problems.

Cognitive therapy - Cognitive psychology applies to the study of thinking, concept formation, and problem solving. This therapy emphasizes changing how the client thinks.

Crisis residential treatment services - This term refers to short-term, 24-hour care provided in a non-hospital setting during a mental health crisis. For example, when a patient becomes aggressive and uncontrollable, despite in-home supports, a parent can temporarily place the patient/child in a crisis residential treatment service. This care is designed to avoid inpatient hospitalization, help stabilize the child, and determine the next appropriate step.

Day treatment - Day treatment includes special education, counseling, parent training, vocational training, skill building, crisis intervention, and recreational therapy, lasting at least four hours a day. These programs work in conjunction with, and may be provided by, mental health, recreation, and education organizations.

Depression - Depression is an affective disorder characterized by extreme sadness and guilt, immobility due to lethargy or apathy, and inability to enjoy normal living and activities.

Drug therapy - In drug therapy, various drugs are used to alleviate symptoms of some mental illnesses. Lithium is used in alleviating symptoms of manic depression. Tranquilizers are used to reduce anxiety. All drugs have side effects, such as Ritalin, which is prescribed for hyperactive children, and can retard physical growth.

Family support services - Family support services refer to help designed to keep the family together, while coping with the mental health problems that affect them. These services may include consumer information workshops, in-home supports, family therapy, parenting training, crisis services, and respite care.

Inpatient services - This term is often erroneously treated as being synonymous with residential services. They are actually quite different. While both inpatient and residential treatment centers provide services 24 hours a day; it is what they provide services for and where they provide services that make them different. Inpatient services include activities similar to a hospital, such as rounding and include staff such as nurses. Inpatient also generally includes bed-based care or room-based care with only the patient in that bed/room, whereas residential care usually includes activities outside the patient’s room and often including multiple patients. Inpatient services in a BH setting do not include fluid management activities, physical wound/disease care activities, etc, which are key differentiators from hospital-based inpatient services where these are common.

Intake/screening - Intake/screening services are designed to assess the type and degree of a patient’s behavioral or mental health condition to determine whether services are needed and to link a patient to the most appropriate and available service.

Integrated care - Integrated care involves the combination of physical medicine and behavioral healthcare services sharing all known patient information within a single organization and location.

Mental health - “Mental health” used to be the catch-all phrase, but has been replaced by “behavioral health.” Mental health is typically relegated to psychological illness, and treated primarily by psychiatrists. Primarily treatment of learning and emotional disorders. 

Psychiatry - Psychiatry is a medical specialty focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of disorder behavior. Psychiatry is the medical specialty that is concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders. Psychiatrists are doctors who have completed a residency in psychiatry. They diagnose mental illness through clinical interviews and psychological tests and by examining the patient’s history and studying the causes of mental illness and the different treatment procedures.

Psychology - Psychology involves the study of the way people think and behave. The field of psychology has a number of subdisciplines devoted to the study of different levels and contexts of human thought and behavior. Social psychology, for example, deals with human thought and action in a social context, while physiological psychology is concerned with thought and behavior at the level of neurology. Comparative psychology compares the thoughts and behavior of humans with that of other species. Abnormal psychology studies atypical thought and action.

Psychotherapy - Psychotherapy involves the use of psychological methods to treat abnormal or disordered behavior.

Residential services - “Residential services” is not synonymous with “inpatient services.” (See inpatient services description above.) Residential treatment centers provide services 24 hours a day for patients with serious emotional disturbances who require constant supervision and care. Treatment may include individual, group, and family therapy; behavior therapy; special education; recreation therapy; and medical services. Residential treatment is usually more long-term than inpatient hospitalization. Residential treatment centers also are known as therapeutic group homes. The primary purpose of residential treatment is to improve overall functioning, including social and behavioral skills, so the individual can function adequately in the community, either at home or independently.

Wrap-around services - Wrap-around services refer to a package of unique community services and natural supports that are flexible and tailored to meet the unique needs of patients with serious emotional disturbances. Wrap-around services are based on a definable planning process and designed for children and their families to achieve a positive set of outcomes in the home setting. Services are provided by multidisciplinary teams that may include case managers, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, vocational specialists, substance abuse specialists, community workers, and family members or caregivers.

Behavioral health is complex. Both in terms of the issues it addresses and in its terminology. Understanding the language of behavioral health is becoming increasingly important as healthcare moves to a more integrated approach and as more people seek behavioral health services.

  1. National Business Group on Health
  2. American Public Human Services Association

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Gary Steiner
NextGen Healthcare Specialty Director, Behavioral Health