May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but the term mental health can mean different things to different people. What is a mental illness? Where does behavioral health fit in? Let’s clear up some definitions that can confound patients and may discourage people from seeking help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health includes “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” Mental health issues can be episodic or chronic. Diagnosing and treating chronic mental disorders is the terrain of psychiatric therapy provided by psychologists (with graduate degrees in psychology) and psychiatrists (medical doctors who specialize in mental health). Episodic problems based on a specific situation are typically handled by behavioral health clinicians.

There is growing consensus about the connection between mental and physical health, a connection that works both ways. Illness and injury can lead to feelings of depression, but stress and anxiety can also lead to physical issues like migraines or hypertension. This is why Kinwell takes a whole-person approach to healthcare and has incorporated behavioral health into the primary care setting.

“I would say half the patients who walk through our doors have a behavioral health component to their physical health,” noted Dr. Mia Wise, Chief Medical officer for Kinwell. “A diagnosis of pre-diabetes can be traced back to a patient’s diet, but the real problem may be depression that is causing them to eat less-nutritious food.”

The American Medical Association notes that behavioral health clinicians treat “substance use disorders, life stressors and crises, and stress-related physical symptoms.” Behavioral health can be seen as the primary care of mental health, providing treatment for occasional challenges that impact a patient’s quality of life.

Kinwell’s longer appointment times  provide clinicians and patients the opportunity to discuss issues like stress at work or difficult relationships. Clinicians can treat such challenges with proven techniques and may refer patients to an on-staff behavioral health clinician to work through a specific issue. Behavioral health treatment is often delivered online and, like primary care, ends when patients see improvement.

“For most patients, a consultation with a behavioral health clinician is enough to help them through a tough time,” said Dr. Asher Strauss, Kinwell’s Director of Behavioral Health, and a licensed clinical psychologist. “We work with patients to address the problems they are facing in their day-to-day lives. This might be a time of depression or anxiety or a substance abuse problem.”

If a patient requires intensive therapy, clinicians will refer them to appropriate psychiatric services. Such referrals enable Kinwell’s behavioral health team to see more patients, provide early interventions, and focus on healthy lifestyle habits. Including behavioral health in the primary care setting is known as integrated primary and increases access to mental health services at a time when they are in high demand.

According to a 2017 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five adults in the U.S. has a mental health or addiction issue. Since the pandemic ended, the need for behavioral health services—especially for children and teens—has only increased. Including behavioral health as part of the primary care conversation also normalizes these services, removing the stigma some associate with this treatment.

“Our goal is to meet our patients where they are at, “ noted Strauss, “and where patients are comfortable is in their primary care setting, whether a brick-and-mortar clinic or online. These are low-barrier, impactful services. Kinwell even offers health coaching to help patients reach their goals for healthier living. It’s a whole-person approach.”

Behavioral health and psychiatric services share the same goal of improving each patient’s mental and emotional well-being. The differences are in the intensity and duration of treatment. While psychiatric care is essential for the small percentage of cases, behavioral health can address the occasional needs of a broader range of patients.

If you feel you would benefit from a consultation with a behavioral health specialist, talk to your primary care clinician. Set up an appointment through your MyChart account. New patients can call 833-411-5469. Kinwell offers group classes to teach coping skills for emotional situations. For more information click here or call (206) 360-9298.