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Mental Health Literacy: Definition, Importance, and Impact

April 14, 2024

What should people do when they get sick? Where should they turn for information or support? 

Health literacy refers to the knowledge and skills that enable individuals to seek, access, understand, and act on health information. Individuals with high health literacy know how to get answers to their health questions and how to use that information to promote their own health and well-being.

Today we understand that mental health is a crucial and inseparable component of overall health. With a high degree of mental health literacy, individuals and communities are empowered to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and to know where to go to seek support for mental health issues.  

Understanding and increasing individuals’ mental health literacy is a priority of public health leaders across the country. Those who have a passion for healthcare equity may be drawn toward a career in public health leadership, and an excellent way to prepare is by earning an advanced degree in public health.

Mental Health Literacy Defined 

It’s important for prospective public health professionals to understand what mental health literacy is. A useful mental health literacy definition is: the knowledge of and ability to learn about mental health. This includes general knowledge of the signs and symptoms of as well as the treatment resources for mental illnesses, and the ability to recognize, manage, and seek support for mental health issues.

Individuals with high mental health literacy:

  • Possess a general understanding of how healthy bodies and minds function
  • Know about common mental illnesses
  • Know how and where to seek mental health support when they need it

Mental health literacy starts with recognizing the foundations of good mental health. 

This includes knowledge of activities and habits that contribute to mental wellness, such as regular physical activity, healthy eating, adequate sleep, stress management techniques, and socializing.

Mental health literacy also involves having basic knowledge of mental disorders, including being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of various mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. 

It involves being able to capably seek support and having knowledge of the different types of treatment available, such as medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes, where to go to seek help, and how to take action to get the necessary support.

Depending on the nature of the symptoms or disorder(s), the right course of action might include seeking support from:

  • School counselors
  • Therapists/mental health professionals
  • Primary care physicians
  • Social workers
  • Psychiatrists
  • Community mental health services

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Measuring and Evaluating Health Literacy 

Personal health literacy assessments use a combination of performance-based tests, which are tests in which participants are scored based on how well they give correct answers or how well they perform a task, and self-reports. 

Some people have high health literacy on specific health topics, such as nutrition, but still have trouble navigating the complex structure of the healthcare system. Many people simply lack access to basic healthcare services. For example, over 100 million people in the United States do not have a primary care provider, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.  

An estimated 88 percent of adults have below “proficient” health literacy, which makes it challenging for them to navigate the healthcare system and promote their own well-being, according to the Milken Institute. The same institute also found that members of certain social demographic groups have higher barriers to gaining health literacy than other groups:

  • Socioeconomic status. Health literacy levels are related to socioeconomic status. An estimated 49 percent of adults with less than a high school education have “below basic” health literacy compared to 15 percent of high school graduates and only 3 percent of bachelor’s degree holders.
  • Age. Adults ages 65 and older currently have the lowest health literacy of any adult age group, with 29 percent having “below basic” health literacy, and older age is a stronger predictor of lower health literacy than lower socioeconomic status. Researchers hypothesize that health literacy barriers may increase as people age and their self-care demands increase, so older adults, on average, have more health information to track and keep up with. Older adults also may be at a disadvantage in that they have difficulty adapting to digital health resources.
  • Race/ethnicity. Social determinants can mean that members of certain racial and/or ethnic groups currently have lower health literacy than members of other groups. An estimated 41 percent of Hispanic people, 25 percent of Black people, 13 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander people, 9 percent of white people, and 9 percent of multiracial people across the country experience “below basic” health literacy.

What these health literacy statistics show is that health and social demographic factors can combine to worsen individuals’ overall outcomes. For example, people who belong to minority populations in particular are vulnerable to the effects of low health literacy in older age. These statistics also demonstrate that everyone can benefit from greater health literacy. 

Mental Health Literacy Scale 

To measure personal mental health literacy, researchers have developed several tools, one of which is the Mental Health Literacy Scale (MHLS). The MHLS is an 18-item scale that measures an individual’s mental health literacy by assessing their:

  • Recognition of mental health disorders
  • Knowledge of how to seek mental health information
  • Knowledge of risk factors and causes
  • Knowledge of self-treatments
  • Knowledge of professional help available
  • Attitudes that promote recognition and appropriate help-seeking

Individuals respond to each item using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), with higher scores indicating greater mental health literacy.

Aside from the Mental Health Literacy Scale, other tools and methods are available to measure mental health literacy. Some researchers use quizzes or surveys about specific mental health conditions to assess participants’ understanding. Some studies use vignettes, where participants read a short story about a hypothetical person with a mental health condition, and then answer questions about the condition to assess their recognition of the condition and their understanding of effective treatments.

These measures help researchers understand how much the general public knows about mental health and mental illnesses. They can also be used to measure the effectiveness of interventions designed to increase mental health literacy.

Mental Health Literacy’s Importance 

While the concept of health literacy traditionally has been associated with physical health, it now includes mental health as well. Mental health literacy is important to overall health given the prevalence of mental health issues, the interconnectedness of physical and mental health, and the effects that mental health literacy has on public health. 

Prevalence of Mental Health Issues

Mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, are highly prevalent worldwide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness annually, yet only 43.8 percent of those individuals receive treatment.

One of the main reasons mental health literacy is important is that it can lead to improved mental health outcomes. With increased understanding, individuals are better equipped to seek help when they need it and to provide support to others. 

Interconnectedness of Physical and Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Therefore, a complete understanding of health literacy must encompass knowledge and understanding of both physical and mental health. 

For example, chronic physical conditions can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and mental health conditions can have physical manifestations. So understanding both aspects is crucial for overall health literacy.

Decreasing Stigma

Historically, mental illnesses have been shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding. Seen as a sign of innate weakness or divine punishment, mental health issues were not approached as legitimate health issues until very recently. With advancements in medical understanding and societal attitudes, we have come a long way. Still, despite significant strides, much work remains to be done.

Mental health literacy involves promoting an accurate understanding of mental illnesses to combat the misconceptions and stigma often associated with these conditions. This can encourage more people to seek help without fear of judgment or discrimination. 

By enhancing mental health literacy, we can empower individuals to take proactive steps toward their own mental well-being, promote early intervention for mental health conditions, and contribute to a more understanding and supportive society for those dealing with mental health issues.

Reducing Health Inequities

When mental health literacy rates are lower in marginalized populations than in other populations, this can lead to increased health disparities. For example, lower mental health literacy in immigrant communities can contribute to lower rates of mental health service utilization and poorer mental health outcomes. By investing in improving mental health literacy, public health leaders can promote overall community health and well-being.

Greater mental health literacy not only leads to improved societal outcomes but also empowers individuals, families, and even entire communities. With a firm understanding of mental health issues, individuals can make informed decisions about their own mental well-being and seek help when they need it, leading them to live healthier and happier lives.

Impacts of Mental Health Literacy 

Mental health literacy can impact individuals, families, and communities in a wide range of ways.

Poor mental health literacy perpetuates stigma around mental illness and serves as a barrier to mental health service use and treatment intervention, according to an article published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

Adolescents with greater mental health literacy are more likely to exhibit psychological resilience in times of stress, according to an article published in Preventive Medicine Reports. This is especially true for teens from lower socioeconomic groups, which suggests that mental health education can be an effective preventive intervention. 

Implications for Public Health

A high degree of mental health literacy is essential at both the individual and population levels. 

Knowing the signs and symptoms of mental illness can help individuals distinguish the normal ups and downs of life from the onset of depression or anxiety. With appropriate support and evidence-based treatment, most people with a mental illness can function effectively in everyday life. Mental health literacy enables people to make informed decisions about their mental health and facilitates early intervention and appropriate treatment.

High mental health literacy rates translate to greater numbers of people seeking life-affirming treatments for mental disorders. Public health experts understand that low mental health literacy is correlated with numerous public health issues, from gun violence to suicide. Conversely, a population with high mental health literacy is more likely to engage in preventive behaviors, reducing the overall burden of mental illness in the community and promoting population health.

Organizational Mental Health Literacy 

Public health leaders now believe that health literacy should be considered at a personal level and an organizational level. Why? According to Healthy People 2023, which sets national goals to improve health outcomes for the next decade:

  • Personal mental health literacy has to do with an individual’s ability to find, understand, and use health information and services for themselves. 
  • Organizational mental health literacy has to do with the design of organizations. It refers to the degree to which organizations equitably empower individuals to have personal health literacy. 

Here are some specific examples of how organizations can support mental health literacy:

  • Provide training for staff on mental health literacy.
  • Create a workplace culture supportive of mental health.
  • Offer mental health resources to employees.
  • Advocate for mental health policies and programs.

By taking these steps, organizations can help to improve the mental health literacy of their employees and create a workplace that is more supportive of mental health.

Ongoing Efforts to Increase Mental Health Literacy 

Organizations including NAMI, Mental Health America (MHA), and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) offer resources and conduct campaigns to raise mental health awareness and literacy. 

Online mental health resources and telepsychiatry have expanded access to mental health information and care, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an era of social media, both health information and health misinformation spread quickly. Schools and universities can play an important role in teaching general critical thinking skills to combat health misinformation that can proliferate online, especially on social media.

Recognizing the importance of mental health literacy, the U.S. government has implemented initiatives to heighten public awareness. 

For example, in May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General warned of the negative effects of loneliness and isolation on physical and mental health. The Surgeon General’s Advisory outlined a framework to establish the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection that includes:

  • Strengthening social infrastructure by investing in physical community spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and libraries
  • Enacting public policies that support connection among communities, such as accessible public transportation and paid family leave
  • Mobilizing the healthcare sector to assess patients at risk for loneliness and loneliness-related health conditions, including depression, heart disease, and dementia

In addition, the U.S. government recognizes health literacy and mental health awareness two months out of the year: 

  • Mental Health Awareness Month (May)
  • Health Literacy Month (October)

Support Mental Health With a Career in Public Health Leadership 

High mental health literacy rates are crucial to the well-being of individuals and societies. Improving mental health literacy could help close the treatment gap, reduce stigma, and empower individuals to seek out the mental health care they need, leading to healthier, more productive societies. As we move forward, we need to continue to prioritize mental health literacy in public health agendas and make mental health a topic that is accessible and understandable to all.

To prepare for a career in public health leadership, an advanced education is essential. Tulane University’s Online Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) in Leadership, Advocacy, and Equity program provides advanced training for future public health leaders. Earning this degree can be an important step toward a meaningful role in shaping mental health advocacy in the United States. Learn more about how you can become a public health leader with a degree from Tulane University. 

Advance Your Public Health Career with a DrPH in Leadership, Advocacy & Equity

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Readings

The Role of Leadership in Public Health Advocacy 

DrPH vs. PhD: What’s the Difference?

Effective Leadership in Public Health: Essential Skills


Adolescent Research Review, “A Systematic Review of Mental Health Literacy Measures for Children and Adolescents”

Child and Adolescent Mental Health, “Review: School-Based Interventions to Improve Mental Health Literacy and Reduce Mental Health Stigma: A Systematic Review”

Children, “Effectiveness of Mental Health Literacy Programs in Primary and Secondary Schools: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Mental Health Literacy: It Is Now Time to Put Knowledge into Practice”

International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, “Mental Health Literacy: A Critical Target for Narrowing Racial Disparities in Behavioral Health”

Journal of Medical Internet Research, “The Effect of Digital Health Interventions on Parents’ Mental Health Literacy and Help Seeking for Their Child’s Mental Health Problem: Systematic Review”

Maternal and Child Health Journal, “Postpartum Help-Seeking: The Role of Stigma and Mental Health Literacy”

Milken Institute, “Health Literacy in the United States”

Mental Health America, Back to Basics: Understanding Mental Health Literacy

Mental Health Literacy, Our Vision

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health By the Numbers

Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”

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Prevention Science, “The Impact of Mental Health Literacy Training Programs on the Mental Health Literacy of University Students: A Systematic Review”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2030

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Mental Health Literacy and Wellness Education