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

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Mental and behavioral health often come up when discussing treatment interventions like therapy. Understanding the difference between mental health disorders and behavioral health disorders can help you consider what steps to take next if you seek treatment.

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 relates to our thoughts and feelings and how those may impact our lives. The mental health field is large and diverse; 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 significant effects on a person’s day-to-day functioning. Poor mental health can be powerful enough to negatively affect how a person sees the world and themselves and the choices they make about their lives. A person’s mental state may be influenced by different factors, such as their unique brain chemistry, environment, and genetics.

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Problems with mental health can range from sleep and concentration issues to low self-esteem or unhealthy attachment styles. Mental health concerns may also indicate diagnosable mental illnesses or mental disorders. Common mental illnesses include depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), bipolar disorder (BPD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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, often referred to as behavioral disorders, encompass a range of challenges that individuals may face, including: 

  • Substance use disorders 
  • Gambling addiction 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Other addictive behavior patterns 

Common behavioral disorders can often be a manifestation of some other underlying issue. As a result, improving behavioral health may include mental health care in order to address these root causes. This lens is particularly important because unhealthy behaviors, such as addictive behavior patterns, may be a symptom of a greater behavioral disorder. 

In addition to addressing the causes of these disorders, a comprehensive approach to improving behavioral health may also involve helping the person develop a healthy self-care routine. This routine can include mental and physical practices that promote overall well-being and reduce the likelihood of engaging in harmful behaviors. By understanding and addressing the various factors that contribute to behavioral disorders, individuals can work toward improved behavioral health and overall quality of life.

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Mental Health Vs. Behavioral Health

The difference between these two still may not be entirely clear. To understand behavioral health and mental health, it is important to recognize that they are interconnected. Mental health refers to an individual's psychological and emotional state, which can be affected by things such as biological factors, life experiences, and family history. On the other hand, behavioral health encompasses a broader range of issues, including mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and other behaviors that impact an individual's well-being, such as eating habits, exercise, and sleep patterns.

In general, mental health often fits under the behavioral health umbrella. Mental health is a part of the broader behavioral health field, as it encompasses the emotional and psychological aspects of an individual's well-being, which can influence and be influenced by their actions and choices.

An example may help clarify how the two can intertwine.

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

Treatment for mental or behavioral disorders

Receiving some type of help or treatment for mental or behavioral health challenges is usually a key part of managing symptoms or recovering. Mental health treatment may involve medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both, depending on the mental health condition. Behavioral health treatment often involves addressing the underlying causes of these negative behaviors and may include behavioral health services provided by a behavioral health professional.

There are also 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 strategies as effective ways to positively impact mental health for many people, among others:

  • Exercise. Extensive research has been done about the impacts of a consistent 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 much more.
  • Eating nourishing food. While the link between diet and mental health is still being explored, multiple studies have identified that what you eat may have an impact on your mental well-being. Research from 2019 suggests that “diet (often combined with lifestyle) modification has potential in the prevention and treatment of mental health [conditions].”
  • Mindfulness meditation. A 2019 study found that mindfulness can help improve an individual’s level of emotional management, 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 constituents can help people feel more connected, secure, and supported.
  • Psychotherapy. A press release from the American Psychological Association (APA) states: “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.

Addressing the complex relationship between behavioral health and mental health may involve a holistic and integrated approach to treatment. This approach may involve combining medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral health interventions to address both the psychological and behavioral aspects of a person's well-being. By focusing on the interplay between behavioral health and mental health, healthcare professionals can help individuals develop coping strategies and make lifestyle changes that lead to improved mental health and overall well-being.

Seeking care for mental health or behavioral health challenges

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 use 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 or behavioral health conditions. For people who want or need treatment, virtual therapy can allow 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, as online therapy has been found by research to provide similar benefits to in-person therapy. Different types of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic 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.

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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 or behavioral health condition, you may want to seek the help of a professional.

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