Understanding Health Talk in Behavioral Health Encounters: A Qualitative Analysis

Elizabeth B. Matthews, Lynden Bond, Victoria Stanhope

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although physical and behavioral health conditions commonly cooccur, best practices making behavioral health treatment responsive to clients’ health needs are limited. Particularly little is known about how physical health is addressed by clinicians within routine therapeutic treatment. This study describes the frequency and type of health talk occurring within integrated behavioral health sessions, and explores how this talk functions within ongoing therapeutic work. Participants in this study included 51 dyads of clinical social workers (n = 13) and clients (n = 51) receiving therapy within an integrated community health and behavioral health center. Therapy sessions were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Content analysis determined the frequency and content of health talk in sessions. Thematic analysis was used to understand the function of health talk within these visits. Health talk occurred in 92% (n = 47) of sessions. Clients initiated the majority of discussions. Talk about sleep (40%, n = 19), diet/exercise (35%, n = 16), and chronic health conditions (28%, n = 13) were most common. Health talk either complimented or conflicted with therapeutic work, depending on the topic discussed and when it occurred during session. Health talk changed the scope of therapeutic work by integrating care coordination into routine practice. Health talk was pervasive and was frequently initiated by clients, signaling its relevance to clients’ recovery. Providers leveraged heath talk to complement their therapeutic work, but these strategies were not universally applied. Care coordination activities were a part of routine therapy. Practice and policy changes that support a more interdisciplinary approach to clinical work are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)551-563
Number of pages13
JournalAdministration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Behavioral health services
  • Health literacy
  • Health promotion
  • Integrated care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Phychiatric Mental Health
  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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