Behavioral Health Integration: Mental Health Joins Primary Care

You may have been hearing a lot about the need for more healthcare workers in the field primary care, a branch of medicine that provides generalized medical care to patients and plays a huge role in preventative care.

The American Academy of Family Physicians defines primary care as a patients’ “first point of entry into the healthcare system and as the continuing focal point for all needed healthcare services.” Family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine and obstetrics/gynecology are often considered primary care specialties. This entry point is vital to maintaining the health of communities nationwide, and there are an increasing number of incentive programs to encourage individuals to pursue careers in primary care, especially so they can serve in communities of need (stay tuned for a blog post about these programs!).

Mental health may become another component of primary care, acknowledging that mental health and substance use disorders can have a significant impact on patient and community health outcomes. According to an updated 2017 report from the World Health Organization, depression is still the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people of all ages and backgrounds. Mental illness is also often co-morbid with other chronic illnesses. For example, the prevalence of depression among individuals diagnosed with diabetes is high Poor mental health and substance abuse can create significant barriers to health maintenance, healthy social connections and employment opportunities for individuals, families and communities that are affected.

It’s also surprisingly common for patients to come to a primary care provider seeking help for a mental health or substance use disorder.

“Behavioral health integration” is a new movement that embeds mental health care providers in primary care settings, allowing patients to have their behavioral health needs met in the same environment where they receive general medical check-ups for themselves and their families. Although primary care providers are able to treat patients who have mental health or substance use disorders, behavioral health specialists are specially trained to assist patients and families who need long term help. Having a team that includes primary care providers and behavioral heath providers, specialists and consultations is often referred to as Collaborative Care.

A new coverage policy for Medicare to make additional benefits available for primary care settings that adopt the Collaborative Care model was implemented on January 1st, 2017. Read more about it here:

You also don’t have to be a physician, nurse or physicians assistant (PA) to provide behavioral health services in a primary care setting. See last weeks’ post on Careers in Mental Health to find the many ways in which you can work in the field of behavioral health.

For more information on Primary Care and Behavioral Health Integration, check out these free access resources below:

What is Primary Care?

American Academy of Family Physicians:

Need in the Primary Care Workforce

What is Behavioral Health Integration?

Mental Health Family Medicine: “What Is Primary Care Mental Health?”

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Primary Care Research Program:

Bulletin of the WHO: “Prevention of Mental Health Handicaps in Children in Primary Care”


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