Psychiatry has been historically plagued by absurd misnomers. It started with the laughable “mental hygiene,” coined by William Sweetser, MD, in 1843, 1 year before the original 13 members of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane established what in 1921 was renamed the American Psychiatric Association. Mental hygiene evokes an image of psychiatrists scrubbing the brains of mentally ill patients with soap and water! That term was neither medically nor scientifically appropriate, but it stuck for decades.
Enter “mental health.” In 1949, the National Institute of Mental Health was established. It is the 5th oldest of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institutes of Health. Then, in 1963, Congress passed the Community Mental Health Act, which established Community Mental Health Centers around the country. It is perplexing that the term “health” was used instead of “illness,” when psychiatry is a medical specialty that treats mental disorders. Health is certainly the goal of all medical specialties, but cardiology was never called “heart health,” neurology was never called “brain health,” and pediatrics was never called “children’s health.” Like all its sister medical specialties, psychiatry treats disease and syndromes, but somehow, it has been transmogrified into “mental health.” Perhaps it was meant to be a euphemism to disguise and avert the unfortunate stigma associated with mental illness back during the institutionalization era.
The advent of ‘behavioral health’
Then suddenly, the term “behavioral health” was coined and began to be used as a substitute for psychiatry, further distorting psychiatry’s medical identity. Behavioral health is completely different from psychiatry. It refers to healthy behaviors that people should uphold throughout their lives to maintain their overall health and well-being, including eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco and drugs of abuse, practicing safe sex, and establishing meaningful social relationships. So behavioral health promotes a healthy lifestyle, and that could very aptly apply to cardiology, pulmonology, nephrology, or hepatology, where good nutrition and avoiding weight gain, smoking, and sedentary living can reduce the risk for various medical diseases and early mortality. For dermatologists, behavioral health is avoiding sunburn, and for dentists, it is regular brushing and flossing.
Thus, behavioral health is a term that broadly promotes physical health and well-being, and should not be conflated with mental disorders. It is by no means synonymous with psychiatry, a medical discipline that addresses serious disorders of thought, emotions, affect, delusions, hallucinations, suicide, homicide, impulsivity, obsessions and compulsions, motivation, memory, attention, and judgment. Psychiatry is far more than behaviors that promote healthy living. Psychiatry contends with acute and chronic mental disorders, similar to other chronic medical conditions such as chronic heart, lung, gastrointestinal, or kidney diseases. Psychiatric disorders can emerge in individuals despite—and irrespective of—a healthy lifestyle promoted by behavioral health. Most psychiatric disorders have been shown to be highly genetic, and can be triggered by gene-environment interactions, even in the context of a healthful life that behavioral health advocates and fecundates.
I dislike conspiracy theories, but it is legitimate to inquire: Was there a “malicious intent” by insurance companies and managed-care entities when they abruptly replaced the medically accurate term “psychiatry” with the counterfactual “behavioral health”? Did they intend to portray psychiatry as somehow “different” from other medical specialties? Did this phraseological acrobatics facilitate and justify the carving out of psychiatric and addiction care, cursed with an anemic budget and absence of parity for persons with psychiatric brain disorders? Somehow, using behavioral health instead of psychiatry has the unfortunate connotation that patients with mental illness are “misbehaving” by not practicing healthy living, rather than being genuinely medically ill through no fault of their own. That’s a surreptitious de-medicalization of psychiatric brain disorders. It is very likely that the same companies that propagated behavioral health are the ones who came up with the demeaning term “providers,” which lumps physicians with nonphysicians, diluting the medical identify of psychiatrists, and implying a non-equivalence of psychiatric disorders with other medical conditions, which perpetuates stigma.
An erroneous epithet
We are psychiatric physicians, not “behavioral health advisors.” We are graduates of medical schools where we had clinical psychiatric experiences rotating with internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics. We did not have behavioral health rotations. And after graduating with an MD, we spent 4 additional years in psychiatric residency training, not behavioral health training, and we treated very sick patients in emergency departments and on inpatient units, not on behavioral health wards. We receive our board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, not from a behavioral health board. As psychiatrists, we are regularly consulted on the cases of medical and surgical patients who develop psychiatric disorders, which has absolutely nothing to do with behavioral health. Our psychiatric outpatient clinics require extensive medical knowledge and psychopharmacological skills, not behavioral health.
As part of our work as physicians and psychiatrists, we do counsel patients on adopting a healthy lifestyle because many of them have comorbid medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and kidney and gastrointestinal disorders. We practice collaborative care with primary care physicians so we can jointly manage patients’ physical and mental disorders, and help them optimize their lifestyles. Thus, behavioral health is a tiny component of what psychiatrists do, and it does not come close to defining our comprehensive medical care. Similarly, neurologists and cardiologists should not be labeled as behavior health specialties simply because they counsel their patients on how to lower the risk of strokes or heart attacks due to unhealthy lifestyles.
So, let’s call a spade a spade. Psychiatry is psychiatric medical care, not behavioral health. Let’s abandon this erroneous epithet and change the signs outside hospitals and clinics to “psychiatric medicine” facilities. I guarantee that orthopedists would not like it all if you call their specialty “bone health,” and may break your leg if you label their discipline “bone hygiene”… after washing it with soap and water, of course!