Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Why "Behavioral"

Last week the agency announced its name change from Kennebec Valley Mental Health Center to Kennebec Behavioral Health. Since that time we have gotten some feedback on the change, most of it positive, but also some expressions of concern that we may have abandoned our commitment to people living with mental illness or that we are implying that people are somehow to blame for their illness and just need to "fix their behavior." These concerns are understandable, but neither is an accurate reflection of our reasons in making the change. Changing the name of an organization with a forty-seven year history is a complex and involved process. It also offers an opportunity to speak with the community in a very basic way about who we are, who we can help, and what we are able to do.

For at least the past fifteen years, we have heard that the word "mental" in our name was a barrier to many people seeking help for problems in living. In the five decades since our inception the word has unfortunately gained pejorative meaning. For many people the word increasingly carries an impression of hopelessness and "other-ness." That is not what we want to reflect back to our community, either about ourselves or the people we serve. People do not have to label themselves in order to seek out and benefit from help. We believe that changing our name will improve access.

We understand that many people have brain-based or mental illnesses. We know that it is not possible to just "get over it" and behave better. We also know that people do not have to define themselves by their illness alone and that, as for all of us, much of life is what we make of it. 'Behavioral' seems to reflect that opportunity better than 'Mental.'

There is, for example, the opportunity for a person to become an active partner in managing their chronic illness. People can increase their insight and knowledge about their illness and how it affects their lives. They can learn skills for keeping their symptoms more under control and lowering their overall distress about their condition. They can learn to increase their effectiveness as well as their sense of meaning and purpose in their relationships, hobbies, and work. All of these are behaviors and they are things with which we can help.

Finally, this agency has also made a commitment to helping people with substance abuse and dependence issues. The word 'Mental' does not reflect their needs at all and can be a significant barrier to service.

No name is a perfect reflection of any person or agency, but if we are able to improve community access, highlight the power of people to take control in their lives, and reflect a more comprehensive and inclusive mission, many of our goals will be met.

I appreciate the thoughtfulness and interest of people who have questioned our choice. These are fair questions. I hope these comments add some clarity to the discussion.