Behavioral Health VS Mental Health: 5 Basic Differences

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Your overall sense of health and well-being depends on a wide range of factors.

Everything you think, feel, and do can impact your body and mind, from how you eat and sleep to how you handle stress and anxiety.

That’s why, over the last decades, healthcare professionals have begun to pay more and more attention to psychological and behavioral aspects of human health.

Nowadays, you will notice that in every developed country, mental and behavioral health services are an essential part of the healthcare system.    

There are some subtle differences to consider when it comes to behavioral health vs. mental health, and we will explore them together.

What is Behavioral Health?

In broad lines, behavioral health is a field of study covering all aspects related to the biology, emotions, and behaviors of a person’s everyday functioning and mental well-being.  

But behavioral health is not strictly limited to the study of human behaviors. Its aim is also to translate findings into practical approaches.

In other words, this field of study aims to determine which behaviors can negatively impact a person’s overall health and what actions someone can take to improve their well-being.

Long story short, behavioral health has more to do with the specific actions you take in your day-to-day life. It’s about how you respond to whatever life throws down your path and the changes you make to cultivate a sense of happiness and well-being.

Two people experiencing the same emotions can react in very different ways, and this is where behavioral health steps in to clarify the “why.”  

What is Mental Health?

Unlike behavioral health, which focuses on how different actions and lifestyle choices can impact your well-being, mental health is built more around the thoughts and feelings which drive behaviors.

When we hear ‘mental health’, we usually think about our inner world and how emotional problems like depression or anxiety affect our well-being.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” [1]

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Mental health is built around the thoughts and feelings which drive behaviors.

In other words, mental health represents your emotional, mental, and social well-being, affecting how you think, feel, and act.

When you feel good mentally, you can work and study productively, enjoy your free time by engaging in fulfilling activities, and be an active community member.

In a nutshell, mental health should be a fundamental aspect of every society. One study summarized that “mental health awareness needs to be integrated into all aspects of health and social policy.” [2]

Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health: 5 Basic Differences

1. Different Focus

As I said before, while mental health gravitates around the psychological aspects of a person’s life, behavioral health focuses primarily on specific actions and decisions that lead to a better life.

In other words, behavioral health specialists can pinpoint the unhealthy behaviors contributing to low quality of life and recommend practical approaches to build healthy habits.

Mental health experts, on the other hand, look at your emotional problems and formulate explanations based on your life experiences and the way you relate to the world.

2. Different Approach

Although it’s not a perfect comparison, we could think of behavioral health specialists as human health ‘engineers.’ In contrast, mental health experts are the ‘architects’ who look at the big picture.

What I’m trying to say is that behavioral health specialists will use approaches like behavioral analysis to understand, explain, and predict your behavior.

Furthermore, their work generally takes place within primary care settings rather than in specialty mental health settings. [3] 

Mental health professionals prefer to tackle one’s emotional or even behavioral issues by using the approaches of modern psychology.

For instance, if you’re dealing with anxiety, a counselor or therapist will help you understand the nature of your problems by employing explanations derived from their expertise (e.g., psychodynamic therapy, existentialism, cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc.)

3. Different Specializations

If you’re passionate about mental or behavioral health, there are plenty of career options, regardless of which path you choose to follow.

If you lean more toward behavioral health, you can focus on building a career as a school psychologist, clinical health psychologist, addiction psychiatrist, or substance abuse counselor.

As for mental health, some of the most promising career options are psychotherapist, marriage counselor, family therapist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner.

4. Different Problems

Just as there are relatively different career options between behavioral health and mental health, there are differences in the issues addressed by the two fields.

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Behavioral Health about how you respond to whatever life throws down your path and the changes you make to cultivate a sense of happiness and well-being.

Some examples of common behavioral problems include self-harm, eating disorders, addictions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Mental health, on the other hand, is more oriented toward topics like depression, anxiety disorders, sexual dysfunctions, or career development.

5. Different Limitations

While behavioral health is an umbrella term that covers almost every factor that can impact your health and well-being, mental health is somewhat limited to abstract, psychological explanations.

More specifically, mental health is a somewhat narrower field that most experts typically include in the broader scope of behavioral health.

But this doesn’t mean behavioral health is limitless.

For instance, a behavioral health specialist can acknowledge a medical problem's impact on his patient (maybe even provide some basic explanations but doesn’t have the tools or expertise of a medical professional).  

7 Tips on How to Work on your Behavioral and Mental Health

1. Start Journaling

Journaling daily or as often as possible helps you clarify your thoughts and emotions by connecting with your inner world.

Over time, you get to know yourself better, understand your reactions, and manage difficult emotions.

At the same time, a journal can be the place where you can express even the most unacceptable thoughts and emotions.

Although keeping a journal is a relatively old practice, researchers in mental health have only recently begun to unravel its amazing benefits.

Current evidence highlights numerous educational [4] and health benefits for those who journal regularly.

Journaling is also a practice that counselors and therapists often recommend.

With this tool at hand, and the help of a professional, you can ventilate painful emotions and resolve inner conflicts and put order in your thoughts and ideas.

On top of that, a journal can help you develop healthy habits or give up harmful ones by providing a space where you can list your goals and track your progress.

2. Exercise Regularly

Neuroscience researchers have proven what the Latins figured out almost two thousand years ago – a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Exercising has many benefits for your physical, emotional, and mental health regardless of age.

A regular exercise routine can drastically improve your mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, or negative mood and by boosting self-esteem and cognitive function.

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Any effort you make towards overcoming adversity will boost your self-confidence and cultivate an encouraging perspective on life.

Furthermore, an active lifestyle improves sleep quality, increases your resilience to stress, and puts you in a good mood.

Whether you’re dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression, 30 minutes or more of exercise daily for 3-5 days per week is enough to make a significant difference.

If you’re thinking of adopting this habit, make sure to:

  • Set reasonable goals
  • Find an activity that brings you joy
  • Follow an exercise plan
  • If possible, try to exercise outdoors
  • Take it easy, and don’t be too hard on yourself for skipping a day or two
  • Remind yourself that consistency is more important than performance.

And the best part about this practice is that it’s FREE.

3. Embrace a Positive Outlook on Life

Life can throw many unpleasant situations down your path, and dealing with them may often feel exhausting.

While you cannot control or avoid certain events, you can always try to maintain a positive outlook on things.

But keeping a positive perspective requires constantly questioning your gloomy outlook on life.

One way to achieve this is by seeking the advice and support of others.

If you’re going through a rough patch, seeking the company of close people you trust is vital.

Although some alone time can have a therapeutic effect, isolating yourself completely won’t make things easier, especially when the pressure exceeds your ability to cope.

Another way to maintain a positive outlook is by complaining less and doing more.

It’s perfectly ok to feel dissatisfied with how some things are going in your life, but complaining about them 24/7 won’t change anything.

On the contrary, it will build up a defeatist attitude that will make you feel hopeless and lost.

Bottom line, any effort you make towards overcoming adversity will boost your self-confidence and cultivate an encouraging perspective on life.

4. Take Up a Hobby

Hobbies offer numerous psychological benefits and contribute to an increased quality of life.

Whether creative, educational, or sports-related, the essential aspect of a hobby is to be enjoyable.

In other words, it should be something you do for fun, not to achieve a certain level of performance.

Such activities can improve cognitive health and stimulate neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reshape following certain stimulating activities.

A hobby is an excellent way to spend your free time, relax, and disconnect from your everyday routine.

If you ask me, the number one reason you should take up a hobby is that it drastically reduces stress and improves your mood.

More specifically, hobbies allow you to move your thoughts away from everyday problems and focus on enjoyable activities.

5. Meditate

We often think of meditation as a state of inner calm and balance.

Initially, meditation had close ties with religion – not only with Buddhism, with which people usually associate it – but also with Christian practices. For instance, many Christians describe the experience of prayer as a mix of deep focus on a specific thought and a conversation with God.

In recent years, especially in Western cultures, meditation has moved away from its spiritual roots, becoming more of a simple practice for cultivating mental health and well-being.

In essence, meditation is about focusing on a single point of reference. For example, some practices involve focusing on your breath or body sensations, while others revolve around a certain word or phrase known as a mantra.

By using meditative practices, you can eliminate distracting thoughts and remain anchored in the present moment.

Aside from the physiological changes associated with meditation (e.g., reduced breathing rate, decreased heart rate), this practice can also lower stress and improve mental health. [5]

6. Eliminate Toxic People from Your Life

Even though it’s difficult to define what it means to be ‘toxic,’ there are some common traits that all toxic people share.

A toxic individual is a person who desires control at all costs; someone will try to control what you think, feel, say, or do.

Toxic people have a hard time accepting opinions different from their own; they constantly nag you about how things should (or shouldn’t) be done and criticize you for every opinion or decision that doesn’t align with theirs.

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By using meditative practices, you can eliminate distracting thoughts and remain anchored in the present moment.

One of the most common characteristics of toxic individuals is gaslighting.

Using this strategy, they can undermine your self-confidence, ruin your aspirations, and even make you question your sanity.

The more time you spend around them, the more your life feels like one big drama show.

Once you realize that someone in your life, be it a friend, family member, or significant other, has a toxic influence on you, it is your responsibility to act.

That means either discussing this issue in hopes of fixing the dynamics of the relationship or walking away.

It won’t be easy, but it’s the best thing you can do for your inner peace and mental health.

7. Cultivate Healthy and Lasting Relationships

Relationships are an essential part of a healthy life.

Experts have shown time and time again that relationships are essential to physical and mental health.

People who cultivate healthy and lasting relationships are more likely to engage in healthier behaviors and have a lower death rate.

It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship.

Every relationship has both healthy and unhealthy characteristics.

The constant effort that partners invest to maintain a strong bond makes a relationship fulfilling and lasting.

For instance, each partner’s needs are different.

Some feel a greater need for affection, while others desire sincerity above all else.

In this case, a healthy relationship means trying to understand and facilitate your partner’s needs while getting your needs met.

We often concern ourselves with ways to recognize a toxic relationship but spend much less time discovering what a healthy relationship consists of.

In my opinion, the most important ingredients of a healthy relationship are:

  • Trust
  • Empathy and understanding
  • Boundaries
  • Mutual respect
  • Honesty
  • Constructive communication.

Final Thoughts on Behavioral Health vs. Mental Health

In my opinion, the ‘behavioral health vs. mental health’ debate should concern experts more than average joes like you and me.

Whether you’re dealing with addiction or feeling heartbroken, it’s essential to consult a behavioral health or mental health expert who can help you overcome your struggles.

To achieve lasting health and well-being:

  • Journal your stress and worries away
  • Build an exercise routine
  • Take up fulfilling hobbies
  • Maintain a positive outlook on life
  • Use meditation to manage difficult emotions
  • Stay away from toxic people
  • Invest in healthy relationships.

Your health – physical, mental, and emotional – is the only path toward becoming a happier human.

References

[1]n.a., “Mental health: strengthening our response,” World Health Organization, 17 June 2022. [Online]. Available: www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response. [Accessed 7 January 2023].
[2]M. Prince, V. Patel, S. Saxena, M. Maj, J. Maselko, M. Phillips and A. Rahman, “No health without mental health,” The Lancet, vol. 370, no. 9590, pp. 859-877, 2007.
[3]S. Ogbeide, R. R. Landoll, M. K. Nielsen and K. E. Kanzier, “To go or not go: Patient preference in seeking specialty mental health versus behavioral consultation within the primary care behavioral health consultation model.,” Families, Systems, & Health, vol. 36, no. 4, p. 513–517, 2018.
[4]D. Alt and N. Raichel, “Reflective journaling and metacognitive awareness: insights from a longitudinal study in higher education,” Reflective Practice, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 145-158, 2020.
[5]L.-C. Chu, “The benefits of meditation vis-à-vis emotional intelligence, perceived stress and negative mental health,” Stress & Health, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 169-180, 2009.

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for various mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems – anxiety and depression.

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