Across the nation, mental health and substance use disorders are affecting more people than ever before. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that more than one in five adults is currently living with a mental health disorder in the United States. Meanwhile, the latest research from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics estimated that substance use disorders affect more than 20 million Americans.

Traditional treatment models treat mental health and substance use disorders separately. However, with a newer model known as integrated behavioral health (IBH), care for both disorders is blended for more holistic health care that addresses the whole person.

Whether you're already working in behavioral health or are considering this as a potential career path, being aware of the IBH client-centered approach and why it matters in mental health treatment can serve you (and your future clients) well.

Definition of Integrated Behavioral Health

Integrated behavioral health refers to a centralized approach to care for patients with both mental health disorders and substance use issues. Rather than two different treatment teams assessing and creating treatment plans to address each issue separately, an IBH model uses coordinated care services to implement one unified treatment plan that addresses mental health and substance abuse diagnoses.

One of the most important things to consider when it comes to the treatment of substance use patients is that, overwhelmingly, they are experiencing co-occurring diagnoses (COD) in the form of anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health issues. Traditional recovery and substance abuse programs may miss the mark in helping these patients because they tend to focus solely on the treatment of the substance use disorder. Using an IBH approach, patients with multiple behavioral health and substance use disorders can receive the holistic care they need to get better.

Generally, four different stages of treatment are followed in an IBH program, with care teams collaborating on every stage of the plan:

  • Engagement
  • Persuasion
  • Active treatment
  • Relapse prevention

In some cases, you may see or hear IBH referred to as "behavior health integration" or even "collaborative care." Regardless of the term used, the concept remains the same. IBH focuses on treating and caring for the entire person, rather than treating behavioral health issues piecemeal.

It is also worth noting that a main focus in IBH is following a multidisciplinary approach, where health care professionals from different fields collaborate to create the best treatment plan possible based on the patient's unique circumstances. These health care professionals are in regular contact and communication not just with each other, but with patients and their families as well, to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Such collaboration is at the heart of any successful IBH treatment plan.

Some examples of health care professionals who may be involved in a patient's IBH care plan include:

  • Case managers
  • Psychiatrists
  • Nurses
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Counselors

The Goal of IBH

The goal of any behavioral health integration program is to treat the entire patient rather than only focusing on a single diagnosis. Using a patient-centered approach that includes a comprehensive health assessment and collaborative care model, IBH can address both mental health and substance use disorders simultaneously.

The result is increased access to mental health services for those who need them, more collaborative health care practices, and an improved patient experience. This is because health care systems, where care is provided separately (rather than integrated), tend to run into problems with treating patients effectively; these providers fail to recognize and understand how certain mental health disorders can affect and influence substance use.

On the other hand, when a more unified and holistic approach to behavioral health care is taken, care and treatment plans are more personalized. Likewise, the quality of care improves, and patients are more likely to achieve a successful recovery.

Comprehensive Care for Complex Needs

Compared to more traditional models of behavioral health care, IBH provides a more comprehensive approach to care by focusing on the integration of mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment. By addressing multiple aspects of a patient's health under the same umbrella of care, patients receive more holistic treatments that promote lasting recovery.

Consider, for example, a situation where a patient is suffering from a substance abuse disorder. Without an IBH approach, the patient may start an outpatient substance abuse program and see some progress. However, if the patient also has undiagnosed or unmanaged mental health disorders (such as depression and anxiety), these can make long-term recovery from substance abuse difficult.

With an IBH model, the same patient with a substance use disorder would receive a comprehensive health assessment that would alert the care team to the presence of mental health disorders. From there, the care team could collaborate to develop a treatment plan addressing substance abuse as well as mental health disorders. The result is that the patient receives higher quality holistic care that may lead to better outcomes not just in the short term but years down the road as well.

The entire IBH model is centered around the idea that behavioral health, mental health, and substance abuse are highly complex and interrelated. Different disorders can affect and interact with each other in complicated ways, so they cannot be effectively treated in isolation. Instead, care teams must be prepared to collaborate and treat the entire patient to provide the best care and treatment.

Reduction of Stigma and Barriers to Care

One of the biggest advantages of the integrated behavioral health model is the simple fact that it helps to reduce the stigma often associated with mental health and substance use disorder treatment. With this stigma reduction in health care, patients may feel more empowered to take control of their mental health and substance abuse problems without fear of shame or judgment.

This, in turn, can result in improved mental health awareness and the early detection of mental disorders and substance use intervention when it matters most. When patients can receive all their care under the same roof through the IBH model, they don't have to worry about finding multiple providers to address their various diagnoses. This helps break down barriers to care that may otherwise prevent individuals from seeking help in the first place.

Who Else Benefits From IBH?

In addition to helping patients receive more convenient and personalized care, the IBH approach is also beneficial to medical providers and patients' families. Many medical providers enjoy having behavioral health partners available to assist with treating disorders that their medical teams may not have the resources or experience to handle themselves.

Meanwhile, patients' families tend to feel more confident in IBH treatment approaches because they can more easily meet and consult with providers. Rather than having to schedule three different meetings with three different providers to discuss their loved ones' treatments, they can enjoy meeting with one unified team to talk about next steps.

In addition, historically underrepresented populations tend to benefit more from an IBH approach. This includes those who may not otherwise have easy access to mental health services due to health care disparities.

Learn More Today

Compared to more traditional models of behavioral health, integrated behavioral health provides a more comprehensive health assessment and treatment plan for those suffering from substance abuse and mental health disorders. With guidance from a multidisciplinary treatment team, patients can receive the holistic care they need. Meanwhile, IBH programs may be more effective in promoting health care equity and enhancing treatment efficacy. Of course, implementing an IBH approach within an existing practice requires a detailed knowledge of how these programs work and how to develop a successful program from the ground up.

If you're interested in learning more about integrated behavioral health and already have a bachelor's degree, the University of Minnesota's Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Behavioral Health may be right for you. This program, which is offered through the College of Continuing & Professional Studies, consists of 60 credit hours and features a comprehensive, integrated curriculum addressing both mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Learn more about U of M's IBH program by speaking with an advisor, or start your online application today.