Defining behavioral health to understand and better treat it

Understanding the meaning of behavioral health and treating it holistically can lead to better health outcomes.

The definition of behavioral health and its cost if poorly managed

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the meaning of behavioral health is the promotion of mental health, resilience and well-being; the treatment of mental and substance use disorders; and the support of those who experience and/or are in recovery from these conditions, along with their families and communities. So it’s much more than about improving mental health – it’s a broad, overarching term that includes conditions ranging from mental illness to obesity, substance use and autism.

Behavioral health needs are best viewed as a spectrum of severity and complexity (known as "acuity"). The spectrum ranges from low-acuity conditions that are not always clinically diagnosable, such as stress or anxiety, to high-acuity conditions that might become visible through autism, depression or substance use.

92% of adults diagnosed with behavioral health disorders also suffer from physical conditions1 and on average, those who have both behavioral and medical conditions cost employers three to six times more than those who have physical problems alone. Additionally, for plan sponsors, the costs of staff turnover and lost productivity can really add up.

Why use a whole-person health approach

Treatment should take a whole-person approach to identify the root causes of behavioral health challenges and it’s impact on a person’s overall health.

For example, individuals diagnosed with depression are at increased risk of developing chronic physical conditions, which means that the indirect costs of mental health conditions exceed the cost of direct mental health treatment. That’s why a partial solution that only treats depression could lead to relapse or escalation of certain physical conditions.

Yet another crucial dimension to consider when providing care is the effect of social determinants of health, such as economic and employment status, education or housing security. A behavioral health issue is often nuanced with numerous social, familial and cultural factors that may, negatively or positively, influence the person’s psychological well-being.

Moving forward with a whole-person approach to mental health

Quality behavioral health services are defined as treating the whole person by bringing together a range of evidence-based solutions to meet the individual’s physical, psychological and social needs by:

  • Coordinating care across pharmacy, medical and behavioral disciplines.
  • Providing quick, convenient access to quality care, while being mindful of how social determinants of health affect how patients get help, or if they seek support at all.
  • Engaging patients regularly to encourage treatment adherence.

In short, a personalized approach to good behavioral health is crucial, and requires a strong ecosystem of care and knowledge, embraced by providers, plan sponsors, and patients.

The case for measuring high-quality care

As digital and virtual platforms become ubiquitous, and data is shared and analyzed more effectively, integrated platforms can create dashboards to track data and demonstrate improvements. In fact, a previous analysis showed that there is a positive downstream impact of up to $1,377 in savings in the first year for each person who receives behavioral outpatient care. Not only that, the savings impact is sustainable over time with a two-year cost reduction of up to $3,109 per person.

When behavioral health is cared for holistically, and success is measured and tracked, experience shows that the outlook for patients and plan sponsors is significantly improved. This means that plan sponsors have an opportunity to implement high-quality, whole person health connected treatments to meet the challenge.

To find out more about behavioral health care, and how to realize its benefits, download our ebook.

Originally published on 7/28/22 and updated on 5/15/23. 

See how our solutions can help
Evernorth Behavioral Health
Evernorth Behavioral Health takes a data-informed approach and provides personalized care across the entire continuum for the populations we serve. Our solutions help support mental health and emotional well-being by using identification models to proactively engage members, help them navigate to the right level of care, quickly — and provide quality outcomes that drive cost savings.

1 Evernorth Behavioral health insights. Book of business claims data, January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020