What's The Difference Between Mental Health And Behavioral Health?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health and behavioral health are both terms that often come up in relation to treatment interventions like therapy. If you’re interested in seeking guidance or treatment for a challenge you’re facing, understanding the difference between the two can help as you consider what steps to take next.

What Is Mental Health?

While this term is used with increasing frequency in popular culture, many of us might hesitate when asked how to define it precisely. Simply put, mental health is related to our thoughts and feelings and how those may impact our lives. The field of mental health is a large and diverse one: The types of thoughts someone can have are essentially unlimited, and the spectrum of human emotions is broad. Mental health is important because it can have such significant effects on a person’s day-to-day functioning. Negative, flawed, or unhelpful thoughts and feelings can be powerful enough to impact how a person sees the world and themselves, and the choices they make about their lives.

You Don’t Have To Face Your Challenges Alone

Mental health issues may include challenges like low self-esteem or unhealthy attachment styles, or diagnosable conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder (BPD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc. That said, there are many different ways to help improve or maintain your mental health. Different practices may affect people in different ways, since no two brains or life situations are exactly alike. That said, research supports the following as effective ways to positively impact mental health for many people, among others:

  • Extensive research has been done about the impacts of a regular physical exercise routine. Among many other benefits, it’s been shown to have a positive impact on mental health, including the potential to: reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood, improve self-esteem, help relieve stress, increase energy and stamina, and many others.
  • A healthy diet. While the link between diet and mental health is still being explored, multiple studies have identified that one exists. Research from 2019 suggests that “diet (often combined with lifestyle) modification has potential in the prevention and treatment of mental health [conditions].”
  • A 2019 study found that mindfulness can help improve an individual’s level of emotional regulation, especially as it relates to reducing worry and rumination. It concludes then that a link between mindfulness and a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety is likely.
  • A strong social support network. Research has also pointed to links between positive mental health and a strong support network. One study identified “a direct, significant relationship between perceived social support and mental health.” Having close relationships with family, friends, mentors, and/or trusted community members can help people feel more connected, secure, and supported.
  • A press release from the American Psychological Association (APA) puts it this way: “Research demonstrates that psychotherapy is effective for a variety of mental and behavioral health issues and across a spectrum of population groups. The average effects of psychotherapy are larger than the effects produced by many medical treatments.” Working with a therapist can help people develop strategies for managing thoughts and emotions, and for managing symptoms of mental health conditions.

What Is Behavioral Health?

Behavioral health is related to behavior, or the decisions that people make and the actions they take. It’s about how someone’s behaviors impact their health, both mental and physical. Behavioral health issues may include things like:

  • substance abuse
  • gambling addiction
  • eating disorders

Improving behavioral health may include mental health care in order to address the underlying causes of the unhealthy behaviors, since they are often a manifestation of some other issue. It may also include a more holistic approach toward helping the person formulate a routine of healthy self-care, both mental and physical.

Mental Health Vs. Behavioral Health

The difference between these two still may not be entirely clear, and here’s why: The two fields often have significant overlap.

In general, mental health often fits under the behavioral health umbrella.

An example may help clarify how the two can intertwine.

For instance, if someone is experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, it’s a behavioral health topic that usually also presents physical health concerns. Part of the treatment plan for someone with this condition, however, will likely include mental health care like talk therapy. It can help them address thoughts and feelings that may be contributing to the disorder, and it may also uncover any mental health conditions that could also be playing a role such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Seeking Care For Mental Health Or Behavioral Health Challenges

Seeking some type of help or treatment for mental or behavioral health challenges is usually a key part of managing symptoms and/or recovering.

Since conditions related to either aspect of health can be dangerous and/or have a significant negative impact on a person’s life, relationships, and well-being, there are many different types of mental health professionals out there who are specially trained to help. These might include therapists, substance abuse counselors, psychiatrists, school psychologists, social workers, or others.

Getting guidance from a therapist can be a first step—or a simultaneous step in conjunction with other treatment methods—for some people who are experiencing mental health conditions and/or some behavioral health conditions. For those who want or need treatment, virtual therapy allows them to receive guidance from a therapist from the comfort of their own home. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist, since online therapy has been found by research to provide similar benefits to in-person therapy. Keep in mind that therapy, or therapy alone, is not always the recommended treatment plan for every condition. Also, some conditions may require in-person treatment rather than virtual. You may want to consult with your doctor and/or psychiatrist for advice.

You Don’t Have To Face Your Challenges Alone


Mental health and behavioral health are two separate fields. However, they have significant overlap in some ways. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health or behavioral health condition, you may want to seek the help of a professional.

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