Mental health literacy

According to research conducted in 2015, up to 61% of working age adults in England find it difficult to understand health and wellbeing information.1,2 This is often referred to as “health literacy” and it can affect people’s ability to manage long term conditions and make informed choices about their health and wellbeing.1

Mental health literacy, arising from this concept of health literacy, is defined as understanding how to obtain and maintain positive mental health; understanding mental health problems and their treatments; decreasing stigma related to mental health problems; and, enhancing help-seeking efficacy.3

Relationship to Mental Health

Like overall health literacy, mental health literacy is important as it is closely related to help-seeking behaviour and mental health outcomes. People with limited mental health literacy may be unable to recognise signs of distress in themselves or others, which can stop them from seeking support. Furthermore, a lack of understanding about mental health in the general public can lead to discrimination and stigma toward those living with mental health problems.4,5

Mental health literacy is an important empowerment tool, as it helps people better understand their own mental health and enables them to act upon this information. It increases people’s resilience and control over their mental health and enhances help-seeking self-efficacy. This includes knowing when and where to seek help and developing self-management skills.4,6 It can also empower people to effectively manage long-term mental health conditions.7 On a broader scale, improved mental health literacy may reduce the burden on health and social care services and reduce health inequalities.7

Supporting Mental Health Literacy

Improving mental health literacy and empowering people to make informed decisions about their mental health can be done through whole-group approaches, e.g. promoted through community campaigns, peer-support approaches or school- and work-based interventions. It can also involve improving the mental health literacy of professionals through training, education and shared working practices. Mental health literacy can also be improved by identifying key groups likely to have lower mental health literacy and shaping strategies and approaches around particular requirements, e.g. individual training programmes, making further education more accessible, combining general literacy, language and numeracy skills training with empowerment strategies.7

Further Resources

To ensure good mental health for all, the Mental Health Foundation runs several projects that aim to improve mental health literacy, including:

Date Last Updated:

This page was last updated on 24/04/2019


  1. NHS England. (2019). Enabling people to make informed health decisions: Health Literacy. Retrieved from:
  2. Rowlands, G., Protheroe, J., Winkley, J., Richardson, M., Seed, P.T., & Rudd, R. (2015). A mismatch between population health literacy and the complexity of health information: an observational study. British Journal of General Practice, 65(635), 379-86. Retrieved from:
  3. Kutcher, S., Wei, Y., & Coniglio, C. (2016). Mental health literacy: Past, present and future. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(3), 154-158. Retrieved from:
  4. Jorm, A.F., Barney, L.J., Christensen, H., Highet, N.J., Kelly, C.M., & Kitchener, B.A. (2006). Research on mental health literacy: what we know and what we still need to know. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 40(1), 3-5. Retrieved from:
  5. Jorm, A.F. (2000). Mental health literacy. Public knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry, 177, 396-401. Retrieved from:
  6. Berry, J. (2016). Blog: Does health literacy matter? Retrieved from:
  7. Public Health England. (2015). Local action on health inequalities: Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities. Retrieved from: