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Behavioral and Cognitive Mental Health Theories

Mental health approaches attempt to explain the development of human beings socially, psychologically, and behaviorally. Early and Grady (2017) explain that researchers focused on suffering and pain alleviation for an extended period. Therefore, they aimed to understand what was wrong with an individual and how to solve the situation (Early & Grady, 2017). Different scholars developed theories such as behaviorism and cognitive approaches to explain people’s growth.

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The behavioral approach, developed by B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson in the early twentieth century, focuses on behaviors that can be seen and discounts independent mental activities. This theory explains that learning occurs only when the results can be observed because behaviorists’ primary interests are changes in action (Early & Grady, 2017). The behavioral approach states that environmental conditions are the basis of new morals’ acquisition. Cognitive mental health theory, founded by an educational psychologist known as Jean Paget in the 1950s, describes human minds’ work while they learn (Early & Grady, 2017). This approach aims to explain how the human brain processes information and how learning happens through internal data refining.


Behavioral and cognitive mental health theories use the mechanism as a basic assumption. They view human beings’ actions, whether mental or not, as determined by physical rules and regulations (Early & Grady, 2017). Moreover, both approaches have a similar contradiction because they base objective science on using subjective metaphors. For example, behaviorism applies response and stimuli figure of speech to explain the behavior exhibited in the world (Early & Grady, 2017). Simultaneously, cognitivism uses the refining of information to illustrate how human beings interpret, understand or remember the surrounding events.


The two mental health approaches exhibit differences in their behavioral views. Behavioral theory explains that learning happens based on observable conducts (Early and Grady, 2017). On the contrary, Early and Grady (2017) explain that cognitivism explains the work of an individual’s mind while learning. Behaviorism, that used animals as primary subjects, is based on environmental stimuli and response concepts. On the contrary, cognitivism, which used humans as examples, concentrates on internal mental processes.

Application in the Nursing Practice

Behaviorist theory can be used in the nursing practice to understand autistic patients. For example, Early and Grady (2017) explain that a nurse can alter the environmental stimulus condition or change what happens if a patient responds. Also, healthcare providers can apply the cognitivism approach to educate young adults on using birth control appropriately (Early and Grady, 2017). Education happens by exploring specific word implications and methods associated with contraceptives by the youth.

Problems Associated with the Theories

Although behavioral theory tries to explain individuals’ conduct, it is one-dimensional and does not account for internal moods such as feelings, thoughts, or mood. Early and Grady (2017) explain that the approach is also shallow and superficial in explaining people’s learning and behavior. In contrast, cognitivism theory likens human minds to computers which might be incorrect (Early & Grady, 2017). The reason is that individuals make mistakes, forget, and have emotions contrary to computerized machines.

In conclusion, mental health theories explain human beings’ behavioral, social, and psychological growth. The behavioral approach states that learning occurs if results can be observed, while cognitive theory explains that information is refined in individuals’ brains. Both approaches use a mechanism as an assumption of people’s conduct. However, cognitivism focuses on internal processes, while behaviorism explains that learning occurs based on what can be observed.

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Early, B. P., & Grady, M. D. (2017). Embracing the contribution of both behavioral and cognitive theories to cognitive behavioral therapy: Maximizing the richness. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 39-48. Web.

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