Mental health literacy

Mental health literacy is defined as "knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention".1

It is made up of several components, and is focused on better equipping people to overcome structural barriers to health and to tackle both stigma and discrimination. Components include:

  • the ability to recognise specific mental health problems
  • knowledge and beliefs about risk factors, self-management approaches, and of the professional help available
  • knowledge and beliefs about self-help interventions
  • attitudes which facilitate recognition and appropriate help-seeking
  • knowledge of how to seek and access mental health information.2

A focus on a person’s literacy, language and numeracy skills is central to improving mental health literacy.3 Information on mental health needs to be clearly written and accessible to all, and this information needs to translate to practical social skills and communicative elements that aid individuals to access and maintain health.4

Mental health literacy is a relatively new concept in health promotion and describes a range of outcomes to health education and communication activities. For example, simplifying the language and information given out by GPs and choosing a clear layout and design. This said, more research is still needed to understand the effects of specific health literacy initiatives among disadvantaged or vulnerable groups, as well as the impact on health inequalities overall.

What are the benefits of improving mental health literacy?

Those identified as having limited mental health literacy are more likely to demonstrate unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, for example, lack of physical activity, smoking and poor diet . In health and social care staff, a lack of mental health literacy can lead to misunderstanding and discrimination toward people living with mental health problems. 

Improved mental health literacy can:

  • increase health knowledge and build resilience
  • encourage positive lifestyle change
  • empower people to effectively manage long-term health conditions
  • reduce the burden on health and social care services
  • potential to reduce health inequalities.

How can mental health literacy be improved?

Broad strategy initiatives

Strategies aimed at a broad audience. For example, these can be promoted through whole community campaigns, peer-support approaches or school-based interventions. This could also involve improving professionals mental health literacy through training, education and shared working practices.

Targeted action

Identifying key groups likely to have lower mental health literacy and shaping strategies and approaches around particular requirements. This could involve individual training programmes, making further education more accessible, combining general literacy, language and numeracy skills training with empowerment strategies.6

References

  1. Jorm, A. F., Korten, A. E., Jacomb, P. A., et al (1997a) ‘Mental health literacy’: a survey of the public's ability to recognise mental disorders and their beliefs about the effectiveness of treatment. Medical Journal of Australia, 166, 182 -186
  2. Public Health England. (2015). Local action on health inequalities; promoting health literacy to reduce health inequalities. London: Public Health England. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460710/4b_Health_Literacy-Briefing.pdf
  3. Public Health England., UCL, & Institute of Health Equity. (2015). Local action on health inequalities: Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities. Practice resource summary. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460710/4b_Health_Literacy-Briefing.pdf [Accessed on 01/06/2016]
  4. Nutbeam, D., (2000) Health Literacy as a Public Health Goal: A Challenge for Contemporary Health Education and Health Communication Strategies into the 21st Century. Health Promotion International 15(3) 
  5. Nutbeam, D., (2000) Health Literacy as a Public Health Goal: A Challenge for Contemporary Health Education and Health Communication Strategies into the 21st Century. Health Promotion International 15(3) 
  6. Public Health England., UCL, & Institute of Health Equity. (2015). Local action on health inequalities: Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities. Practice resource summary. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460710/4b_Health_Literacy-Briefing.pdf [Accessed on 01/06/2016]