How do mental health and behavioral health differ?

September 21, 2021 - 10 min read


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What is mental health?

What is behavioral health?

What are common mental health illnesses?

Do negative behaviors always accompany mental health conditions?

What are common behavioral disorders?

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

How can mental illnesses and behavioral disorders be treated?

A journey toward mental fitness

How can we handle life’s stressors, whether they're from our day-to-day or big events? How can we maintain our focus on work? 

How can we change some of our habits that are impacting our well-being?

Mental health and behavioral health often get used interchangeably, yet they’re not quite the same — and the treatment method may also vary. 

In this article, I provide insights into behavioral health vs. mental health. Let’s deep dive.

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 in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.  

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

Our mental state can affect the way in which we live our life, we show up in our relationships (both in our personal and professional life) as well as our physical health. Similarly, factors in people’s lives, interpersonal relationships, and physical factors can all contribute to mental health disruptions.


What is behavioral health?

Behavioral health is most commonly defined as the connection between behaviors and the health and 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 wellness — both physical and mental.

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

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 and 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 sense of unease that persists and interferes with everyday life by causing repetitive worries as well as sleep and concentration issues.
  • Bipolar disorder is characterized by experiencing episodes of extremely low moods that meet the criteria for major depression (called “bipolar depression”) and episodes of extreme high moods called “mania” (euphoric or irritable states). A less severe form of high moods could also occur (called “hypomania”).
  • Schizophrenia causes people to lose touch with reality and 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 also experience sleep issues. However, not everyone develops a behavioral disorder or negative behavior. When a distinct behavior shows up regularly and begins to negatively affect someone, it may be a disorder requiring more specific treatment and mental health care. 

What are common behavioral disorders?

Here are some common behavioral health disorders: 

  • Substance abuse often starts when people misuse substances to self-medicate or cope with an existing issue. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults experienced a substance abuse disorder in 2017.
  • Self-injury is most often associated with depression and dissociation, or negative self-image. Identifying this behavior as separate from depression can significantly impact the treatment path and potential for recovery.
  • Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating. These behaviors may lead to significant medical complications. They also present a specific set of mental health issues associated with self-image obsession and lack of perceived control.

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 are a result of behavioral issues, but not all. Some are caused by brain chemistry or genetic inheritance. 

How can mental illnesses and behavioral disorders be treated?

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 right 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. It’s important to not only focus on behavior modification but also ensure that any underlying psychological/psychiatric conditions are looked at. Conversely, it is also important to not only focus on treatment with medication without having considered the need to change habits and behaviors, in part by addressing the triggers and environment.

Sometimes, the most effective treatment plan may require a collaborative approach, with a team of different behavioral health professionals to consider all aspects of a patient’s well-being.

A journey toward mental fitness

Taking care of your mental health is an important first step to mental fitness — where you feel emotionally and mentally strong and empowered to maintain your mental state while adjusting to dynamic circumstances. 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 for the challenges you are facing. If you're not sure 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 own mental health, no matter where they are in the journey.  


Published September 21, 2021

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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