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Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health: What is the Difference? 

behavioral health vs mental health treatment

Health is all-encompassing. While many people define health by physical traits, like body strength, nutrition, and sleeping patterns, there is much more than what meets the eye. Mental health and behavioral health – how a person thinks, feels, and acts – are also key components to their overall well-being. However, mental health and behavioral health are not as easily acknowledged or understood. 

If you are researching mental health treatment options, you’ve likely come across a reference to “behavioral health,” too. The terms “behavioral health” and “mental health” are closely related and often coincide. And while these terms can get used interchangeably, they do not always mean the same thing. There are many key differences between behavioral health and mental health, in terms of their definitions, diagnoses, treatments, and general needs.  

Understanding the differences between behavioral and mental health can help you, or someone you love, determine the best course of treatment.  

What is Behavioral Health? 

Behavioral health relates to the way we act, how we respond to situations, and our daily habits – and further, how these actions impact our mental and physical health. Our eating habits, substance abuse, and exercise routines, for example, are all behaviors that impact our overall well-being (good and bad). 

Behavioral health is a broader and more expansive term than mental health, as it relates to how our behaviors affect our general health (physical and mental) and our lives more generally. For example, behavioral health can play a role in: 

  • Mental healthcare 
  • Marriage and family counseling 
  • Substance abuse treatment 
  • Eating disorder treatment 
  • Chronic disease management 
  • Academic and professional success 

For this reason, mental health is often seen as a subset of the broader, behavioral health umbrella.  

What is Mental Health? 

Mental health refers to our psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It affects our mood, thought patterns, and behaviors. In turn, mental health also translates to our ability to cope with stress, handle emotions, relate to others, make decisions, and be productive in everyday life.  

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is an integral part of our well-being, and it is determined by a range of biological, environmental, and socioeconomic factors. For example, abuse and violence in one’s past can create mental health problems in the future. Discrimination, social exclusion, stressful work or living conditions, physical illness, and unhealthy lifestyles – along with genetic factors – can also lead to issues with mental health.  

Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Most mental health issues begin before the age of 24, though many arise during the teenage years. 

Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health Disorders 

When trying to understand the differences between mental health and behavioral health, consider this: Not all mental health disorders are a result of behavioral issues. Similarly, not all behavioral health issues are triggered by mental health conditions. However, there is often overlap. 

For example, the following mental health disorders are not typically caused by one’s behaviors. Rather, these disorders are often a result of brain chemistry differences, environmental factors, and/or genetics: 

  • Bipolar disorder 
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Depression 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder 

Similarly, behavioral health issues do not always lead to mental health problems. For example, poor eating habits can lead to obesity, which may be a purely physical health concern.  

Meanwhile, there are some behaviors that can lead to issues with mental health. These include: 

  • Substance abuse 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Self-harm 
  • Other addictions, such as gambling 

The above, adverse behaviors can be caused by mental health problems, as well as bring on mental health disorders. In other words, certain maladaptive behaviors can be mental health related. Someone may turn to self-harming behaviors due to their depression. Or, substance abuse may trigger mental health issues like anxiety. Thus, there is often a fine line between behavioral health and mental health.  

Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health Treatment 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the most effective way to treat issues with behavioral health is a combination of counseling and medication. However, every person is unique. It is important to seek a trained professional, such as a clinician, who can provide a proper assessment and diagnosis. This can then dictate the best method for treatment. For behavioral health concerns, no single treatment works best for everyone. As everyone has different needs and symptoms, different treatments are needed.  

This is also true for those with mental health disorders. No treatment is one-size-fits-all, and every case and condition must be evaluated to know the best course of action. However, common mental health therapy methods include family therapy, group therapy, one-to-one counseling, and medication aided treatments. 

As noted above, sometimes behavioral health and mental health disorders overlap. They can have a very causal relationship, which makes treatment more complicated. For example, substance abuse and depression are very common. A person who is depressed by turn to negative behaviors, including drug abuse and excessive drinking, to cope with their bad feelings. This can trigger a substance use disorder. Similarly, maladaptive behaviors like substance abuse can trigger mental health problems. Someone who is constantly using drugs and alcohol can experience chemical changes within the brain, leading them to develop depressive symptoms.  

For those behavioral health issues that coincide with mental health disorders, an integrated approach is always recommended.  

Behavioral health treatments that can help those with mental illnesses or substance use disorders, for example, include counseling and evidence-based therapy methods. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a great example of an evidence-based modality that seeks to change a person’s behaviors and attitudes, and in turn improve a person’s mental health and well-being. Medications may also help alleviate the symptoms, but should always be accompanied by active and ongoing behavioral and mental health therapies.  

When a behavioral health and mental health disorder are affecting an individual, it is called “co-occurring disorders.” Collaborative, integrated treatment is necessary to treat these disorders. Because of their overlap and causal effects, they must be treated at the same place, by the same team. 

Turnbridge is an integrated mental health treatment center with programs to support co-occurring disorders. We offer a range of behavioral treatment modalities for teens and young adults. If your loved one is in need of mental health or behavioral health treatment, you can contact Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 or visit us online to learn more about our programs.