Behavioral health vs. mental health: Breaking down the differences

behavioral health vs mental health 


Everything from sleep to diet to exercise can affect your health. While we often consider the strength of our physical bodies, there’s another side of your well-being to consider — the way you think, feel and act. These relate to your behavioral and mental health. 


While many people use these terms interchangeably, there are subtle distinctions that matter when it comes to diagnosing and treating psychological issues. There are even different approaches to managing problems related to behavioral health versus mental health.


Whether you’re interested in better understanding your own psychological wellbeing or helping others take control of theirs, you can benefit from learning about the difference between these two terms. Join us as we discover the distinctions, along with some common conditions, treatments and careers associated with each.

How do these terms differ?

Unsurprisingly, behavioral health has more to do with the specific actions people take. It’s about how they respond in various scenarios. Two people who are experiencing similar emotions may react in very different ways. Mental health, on the other hand, has more to do with thoughts and feelings. It’s pretty specific to biological factors that influence our mental state.


While these two topics are closely related, they are certainly distinct. As we examine each field of study, it can be helpful to think of mental health as feeding into the broader behavioral health umbrella.

Behavioral health vs. mental health: Identifying typical conditions

It’s difficult to talk about behavioral or mental health without exploring some of the corresponding conditions. Let’s start with mental health. Below are some of the most common and recognizable mental illnesses identified by the Alvarado Parkway Institute.

Common mental health illnesses:

  • Depression is characterized as a mood disorder and leaves people feeling persistently empty and heavy. There are different forms of depression — including postpartum and seasonal affective — but they all disrupt a person’s day-to-day life. 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder is a step above occasional anxiety. For some people, that sense of unease can persist and interfere with everyday life by causing repetitive worries as well as sleep and concentration issues. In some cases, it can escalate into a panic disorder.
  • Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of depression and mania — extreme hyperactivity. Like most mental health conditions, there are varying degrees of bipolar disorder, and not everyone experiences it in the same way.
  • Schizophrenia is an uncommon condition, but it is most notable for causing people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms like hallucinations, delusions and unhealthy, repetitive thoughts.

Negative behaviors don’t always accompany these mental health conditions. Most everyone with depression, for example, experiences sleep issues. But not everyone develops a behavioral disorder. When a distinct, regular behavior that goes beyond the scope of a typical mental illness begins to negatively affect someone, it becomes a disorder that typically requires more specific treatment. Here’s a look at some common behavioral disorders.

Common behavioral disorders:

  • Substance abuse often starts when people misuse substances to self-medicate or cope with an existing issue. While it may seem to work for a time, this behavior eventually worsens the problem and becomes one itself. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults experienced a substance abuse disorder in 2017.
  • Gambling addiction is similar to substance abuse. Researchers believe it can stimulate the brain’s reward systems to overproduce dopamine, creating a need to pursue risky behaviors. Gambling addiction can even result in withdrawal when the chemical high isn’t achieved.
  • Self-injury is most often associated with depression and disassociation, but some psychology experts think the tendency to harm oneself is more specifically tied to a 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. Not only can these behaviors lead to significant medical complications but they present a specific set of mental illness issues associated with self-image obsession and lack of perceived control.

Considering a career in psychology?

Learn about this helping profession, then explore career options that fit your future.

Exploring effective and collaborative treatments for psychological issues

Every patient’s treatment must be uniquely tailored, and there are numerous factors that go into deciding what kind of plan is best. The most effective treatment often involves providers working together to examine all aspects of the patient’s wellbeing. Only then should they recommend interventions, which can include medication, group therapy, psychotherapy and other forms of treatment. What health experts call comorbidity — the presence of two or more conditions at the same time — is perhaps the most important thing to consider when talking about mental and behavioral health treatment. 


If someone is experiencing both depression and substance abuse, for example, it won’t do much good if their counselor only treats their depression. The same issue arises when a provider only attempts to modify the addictive behavior. It takes a two-pronged approach.

Impactful careers in both fields

The field of psychology houses numerous career paths. Many practitioners specialize in something aligned pretty specifically with either mental health or behavioral health.

Common mental health professions:

  • Licensed marriage and family therapists work with couples and families. They examine how a person’s close relationships influence their overall health and support system, including issues like chronic stress, emotional abuse and more.
  • Mental health therapists are generalists who can work with a variety of clients. They blend relationship-building with empirical evidence to formulate effective treatment for diagnosable disorders as well as grief, stress and transitions.
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who are trained to work with individuals, families and groups to provide psychiatric care. They assess, diagnose and treat a range of disorders.
  • Gerontological social workers focus on helping aging individuals maintain as much autonomy and dignity as possible. They connect older adults with needed services and also help them with issues related to mental health and quality of life.

Common behavioral health professions:

  • Substance abuse counselorswork with recovering addicts one-on-one and in groups. In addition to holding them accountable for sobriety, they help clients find better ways to cope with stress, navigate withdrawal, avoid triggers and reestablish their responsibilities. 
  • School psychologists help students with mental health issues, but they also address many behavioral problems — everything from bullying to drug use to acting out in class. School psychologists also play a big role in providing support for those with learning disabilities and struggling academic performances.
  • Clinical health psychologists address psychological, social, cultural and biological factors and how they affect an individual. They often help patients address tobacco use, weight management and adjusting to a serious disease.
  • Addiction psychiatrists are medical doctors who are trained to help patients experiencing substance misuse. These physicians are deeply knowledgeable of the underlying factors and many also engage in research.

Explore the possibilities in psychology

If you found the discussion of behavioral health vs. mental health interesting, you can see why psychology is a popular college major. By better understanding the way people think, feel and act, students who study psychology can better take care of themselves and others.


If you’re interested in learning even more about the fascinating field of psychology, you might want to explore some of the varied professional paths. To explore more some of the positions that are out there, check out our article, "10 Fields of psychology to consider for your career."

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