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The Difference between Behavioral Health and Mental Health

You may be thinking there is not much difference between behavioral health and mental health. In each one you have to change something so you can lead a healthier life. What you work on and how you work on it is exactly what makes the difference between the two. The professionals who can provide help during this process are also different, along with the techniques they use to provide counseling. Knowing these differences can help you determine which type of counseling you need.

Behavioral Health Defined

The connection between your behaviors and your health is the way many describe behavioral health and whether that connection is healthy or unhealthy determines if you need help. Behavioral health was developed to help you use positive behaviors to promote positive health, or to get rid of negative behaviors in order to promote positive health.

Some examples of behavior health would be when you use healthy eating habits in order to lose weight because being obese has been proven to damage your health. Or, if you abuse alcohol or drugs, you take action to stop. You implement new behaviors to help you avoid alcohol or drugs. These may include attending groups or rehab. You may also be suffering from a phobia, such as the fear of flying. Your therapist can help you overcome this fear of flying by helping you have positive interactions with flight.

This technique can also be called lifestyle modification, where the client is aided in altering long-term habits in order to lead a healthier life. For example, people who struggle with smoking, one of the hardest habits to break, are taught positive behaviors to replace the act of smoking.

Most major insurances will pay for a child or family to have counseling with a behavioral specialist or therapeutic support staff.

Behavioral Health Professionals

Behavior Specialists are trained in the mental health field but they work specifically with clients who are trying to change behaviors. Most often behavior specialists work with children who have behavior problems associated with autism or attention deficit disorder. However, they can also work with adults who have developmental disabilities.

Behavior specialists can also work with the family as a whole to help parents learn to implement new techniques with their child. The idea is to maintain consistency when trying to change the behavior of a child. However the child is being rewarded or disciplined at school, should also be the way the parents are doing the same at home.

Working with children is the most common area in which a behavioral health counselor works but they are not limited to that area. They are educated and licensed in areas that can help just about anyone who needs to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.

Therapeutic Staff Support (TSS) are professionals who work under the Behavior Specialists. They usually share the same client. The behavioral specialist will create a treatment plan for the client. It is up to the therapeutic staff support to implement the treatment plan with the client. This means they will work with them one on one, even during school hours, to help them change their negative behaviors. For instance, if a child is acting out in a classroom, the TSS will sit with them in the classroom and each time they act out, they are redirected to a more positive behavior by the TSS. The TSS also documents the child’s behaviors in order to modify the treatment plan if necessary.

Behavioral Health Techniques

Behavior modification techniques are those used to change a person’s reaction to a certain stimulus. The goal is to replace a negative behavior with a positive behavior in order to make your whole body healthier.

Positive reinforcement is one technique used in behavioral health counseling. This happens when the client exhibits a positive behavior and is given a reward or stimulus that makes the client want to continue that positive behavior. This method is sometimes preferred over other behavioral health techniques like negative reinforcement and punishment. Meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy are also some of the positive methods used to help a person through behavioral approaches.

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Mental Health Defined

Mental health includes your emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. All of these affect how you behave. Mental health is the state of your emotions. It is also refers to the health of your brain functions. When you feel depressed or sad or anxious, this means there is a slight dysfunction in your brain, maybe the chemicals aren’t balancing the way they should. This is when you may experience a mental illness. The good news is that mental illness can be treated and improved long-term. To do this, it is important to see a mental health professional.

Mental Health Professionals

There are many more mental health professionals than those who provide behavior therapy. There are psychiatrists, who are actually medical doctors with a specialty in psychiatry. They are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medications. Psychologists have a doctorate degree in a psychology related field. They can offer assessments and counseling.

Clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, counselors and social workers are a few more examples of mental health professionals. There are also counselors in very specific vocations. One example is a school counselor who only provides counseling in the public or private school setting. Pastoral counselors provide therapy to patrons in their particular religion. There are also psychiatric nurses, psychiatric pharmacists, nurse psychologists, drug and alcohol counselors, and even peer specialists.

Mental Health Techniques

The most commonly used technique among mental health professionals is cognitive behavioral therapy. Using this technique, a counselor will help you work on any emotional and behavioral dysfunctions, as well as thoughts that need to be changed.

Other mental health methods include medication, support groups, and even alternative therapies. Alternative therapies can include meditation, yoga, acupuncture and many others that provide a healthy connection between the mind, body and spirit.

The best therapists, whether behavior or mental health, will use a variety of techniques to help you rather than relying on just one method. Because it is rare that the very first method they try will be the right fit for your healing, a good therapist will have a plan b and plan c and even plan d.

No matter which therapist you prefer, it will ultimately be up to you to make the changes. The therapist will help you along the way but it will be your choices and your efforts that make you better.


Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.