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Key Terms

Historically, President John F. Kennedy first brought attention to mental illness and its prevention in the 1960’s.1 Later, President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on Mental Health in 1977 and the formulation of the National Plan for the Chronically Mentally Ill in 1980 were the first formal attempts by the federal government to proactively highlight the mental health needs of Americans.2 More recently, those needs were further articulated by the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health3 and the Institute of Medicine’s Report on Improving the Quality of Health Care for Mental and Substance-Use Conditions.4 In the last twenty years, with the proliferation of systems of care and the consumer recovery movement, the promotion, prevention, and treatment of behavioral health issues has become more widely accepted and integrated into the national dialogue. Below are some of the key definitions for the terms mentioned above.

Mental health: A state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity. Mental health is indispensable to personal well-being, family and interpersonal relationships, and contribution to community or society.5

Positive mental health: High levels of life satisfaction and positive affect (emotional well-being) and psychosocial functioning (psychological and social well-being).6

Behavioral health: According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, behavioral health is comprised of mental/emotional well-being and the choices that people make that affect their well-being. Issues in behavioral health include substance abuse and addiction, mental disorders and psychological distress, and self-harm and suicide. Behavioral health exists on a spectrum, encompassing conditions from stress to serious mental illness. The term “behavioral health” can also be used to describe services that promote prevention and treatment of mental and substance abuse disorders.7

Mental disorder: A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom), disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning), or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.8

Mental illness: A term that refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders.9

Serious emotional disorder (SED): A diagnosable mental health disorder in children and youth where an extreme functional impairment limits or interferes with one’s ability to function in the family, school, and/or community.10

Recovery from mental disorders and substance use disorders: A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. The four major dimensions that support a life in recovery are health, home, purpose, and community.11

Systems of Care: The system of care model is a framework for collaboration that is used to facilitate coordination of services and supports for young people with serious emotional disturbance and their families. The system of care model is based on the belief that the services that children, families, and youth are receiving should be family-driven, youth-guided, culturally and linguistically competent, and strengths- and community-based.12 

Mental health promotion: Interventions that aim to enhance the ability to achieve developmentally appropriate tasks or developmental competencies. It is also about having a positive sense of well-being and the ability to cope with adversity.13 Learn more about how to promote mental health.

Interventions: Interventions are intended to cure or reduce the symptoms or effects of a mental health disorder.14 They can be formal psychotherapy such as individual/family/group psychotherapy or other evidence-informed practice offered by an appropriately trained and/or licensed professional, including early intervention services/supports for young children; services provided by a trained and/or certified wraparound facilitator, family/youth peer specialist; supports provided by a “natural helper” who provides needed support to the individual or family; or services provided by cultural and/or indigenous healers who treat through traditional methods. Any of these, individually or in combination, can provide relief to youth and their families in need. Learn more about the levels and developmental continuum of interventions for mental health disorders and see the Technical Assistance Partnership for more information on interventions that work with youth.

1 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009
2 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009
3 New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003
4 Institute of Medicine,2006
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999
6 Miles, Espiritu, Horen, Sebian, & Waetzig, 2010
7 SAMHSA, 2011
8 American Psychiatric Association, 2012
9 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999
10 Stroul, Blau, Sondheimer, 2008
11 SAMHSA, 2011
12 SAMHSA, Center for Mental Health Services, 2006
13 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009, p. 66
14 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009, p. xxix


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