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How do mental health and behavioral health differ?

March 22, 2022 - 12 min read


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What is mental health?

What is behavioral health?

Mental health vs. behavioral health

What are common mental health illnesses?

What are common behavioral disorders?

What’s the link between behavioral health and mental health?

Treating mental illnesses and behavioral disorders

Mental health and behavioral health often get used interchangeably. But the two are not quite the same, and the treatment methods may also vary.

Our mental health often informs numerous areas of our lives, including our behavior. The way we feel impacts our perception and, consequently, how we respond to situations.

In this article, we’ll look at mental and behavioral health –– how the two are similar and how they differ. Let’s jump in.

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being: how people think, behave and feel.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorder. It is a state of well-being where every individual realizes their potential. In this state, they can cope with the everyday stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community. 

The UK Mental Health Foundation states that good mental health is characterized by a person’s ability to fulfill critical functions, including:




  • The ability to form and maintain good relationships with others


Our mental state can affect how we live in all aspects of life. This includes how we show up in our relationships (both in our personal and professional life) and our physical health. Similarly, individual circumstances, interpersonal relationships, and physical health can all impact mental health.



What is behavioral health?

Behavioral health is most commonly defined as the connection between behaviors and the well-being of the body, mind, and spirit. In simple terms, it’s how one’s behaviors impact their overall health. More specifically, it’s about how our habits impact our general health and physical and mental wellness.

Behavioral health looks at people’s actions and how they respond in various situations. For example, two people may experience the same emotion yet react in different ways.

Mental health vs. behavioral health

As we mentioned, our thoughts and behavior are intrinsically linked. They feed into one another, just as our mental and behavioral health do. But they are separate and should be treated separately.

A mental health disorder can be hard to identify as it relates to how an individual feels or thinks about a given situation. Someone with poor mental health may suffer from poor sleep hygiene or have trouble maintaining healthy relationships.

Poor behavioral health, however, tends to manifest physically. It can often be recognized by a person’s actions and habits. They may engage in substance abuse or suffer from an eating disorder.

When we consider how the two originate, poor behavioral health could stem from poor mental health. Someone may lean on substances to manage their depression, for instance. Similarly, poor mental health can be exacerbated by unbalanced behaviors.


What are common mental health illnesses?

Here are some of the most common and recognizable mental health illnesses:

  • Depression is characterized as a mood disorder. It often leaves people feeling persistently empty and heavy, disrupting a person’s day-to-day life. There are different forms of depression (for example, seasonal affective disorder). 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder is a step above occasional anxiety. It can feel like a persistent sense of unease that causes repetitive worries as well as sleep and concentration issues. With a generalized anxiety disorder, these patterns interfere with everyday life.
  • Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of extremely low moods that are symptomatic of major depression and episodes of extreme high moods called “mania.” A less severe form of high moods could also occur (called “hypomania”).
  • Schizophrenia causes people to lose touch with reality. It leads to symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, and unhealthy, repetitive thoughts. It is, however, a less common condition than the ones mentioned above.

These conditions, as well as any others that affect your well-being and functioning, should be treated by a mental health professional.


Do negative behaviors always accompany mental health conditions? 

Negative behaviors don’t always accompany mental health conditions. For example, it is common for people with depression to experience sleep issues. However, not everyone develops a behavioral disorder or negative behavior. When a distinct behavior shows up regularly and begins to affect someone negatively, it may need more specific mental health care.

What are common behavioral disorders?

Here are some common behavioral health disorders: 

What’s the link between behavioral health and mental health?

Mental health encompasses a number of factors: biology, psychological condition, and behavior. Therefore, behavioral health can be understood as a subset of mental health. 

In many situations, unhealthy habits lead to behavioral health issues. However, they are often not the root cause of the issue. 

In situations where behavioral disorders co-occur with mental health conditions, treating the behavioral disorder (e.g., addiction) may not be sufficient.

Psychiatric or psychological care may be required too. In fact, some mental health disorders result from behavioral issues, but not all. Some are caused by brain chemistry or genetic inheritance.


Treating mental illnesses and behavioral disorders

A starting point to finding the right course of treatment may be talking with your doctor, who may be able to orient you towards the proper care provider.

While a patient’s treatment is unique and individually tailored, here are the most common behavioral health treatment options for people with mental health problems or behavioral disorders:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Psychiatry (including psychiatrists specializing in addictive behavior)
  • Individual or group counseling (including counselors specializing in substance use disorders) 
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Inpatient and outpatient programs
  • Prescribed medication (from a primary care provider or specialist)

It’s crucial to obtain the correct diagnosis for your condition. This often means focusing on behavior modification and ensuring that any underlying psychological/psychiatric conditions are examined.

Conversely, it is also important to consider behavioral change alongside any medicinal treatment. This can be done, in part, by addressing the triggers and environment.

Sometimes, the most effective treatment plan requires a collaborative approach. In these instances, a team of different behavioral health professionals examines all aspects of a patient’s well-being.

A journey toward mental fitness

Taking care of your mental health is an essential first step to mental fitness. In this state, you feel emotionally and mentally able to maintain your mental health through life’s ups and downs. Mental fitness is what supports you to aspire, achieve, and thrive in a demanding world.

Understanding the difference between mental health vs. behavioral health can help you determine how to get the support you need to face your challenges. It's even more important to understand how to take care of your mental health

If you’re unsure what to do, reach out to a social worker or mental health professional. They’ll point you in the right direction and help you take control.

BetterUp Care provides personalized support, resources, and trained professionals to help employees across the workforce. With BetterUp Care, individuals can understand what they need and how to play an active role in their mental health, no matter where they are in the journey.

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Published March 22, 2022

Fiorenza Rossini

Fiorenza works with global leaders and emerging leaders to maximize their impact in their leadership journey. Fiorenza specializes in periods of career transitions and supports the development of resilience, agile leadership skills, communication skills across cultures, and healthy work-life balance. Fiorenza is also a global facilitator, podcast host, mindfulness teacher, and MBTI practitioner.

Fiorenza is multicultural and multilingual in French, English, and Italian, and works in the 3 languages. She currently lives in London, England. She co-hosts The Belonging Project podcast which explores how belonging can show up in so many different ways, what it feels like to belong and the impact of truly belonging.

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