The Importance and Impact of Mental Health Literacy

There’s never been greater demand for increased access to mental health care and the reduction of its stigma. Having the opportunity to receive care or facilitate mental health conversations is required to improve mental health, but how do we open that door in a compassionate and constructive fashion? 

In asking for mental health support, there can be communication gaps in someone’s expression of what they’re experiencing, what they need, how someone can help, and how they can access resources. This is a scenario in which mental health literacy can be the difference maker in progress.  

What is Mental Health Literacy? 

Mental health literacy is defined as “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention”. This can include awareness of: 

      • Symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression 

      • Risk factors and causes for mental health disorders 

      • What self-help and clinical resources are available 

      • How to seek mental health information 

      • Attitudes which facilitate recognition and appropriate help-seeking 

    All of these are crucial for optimal mental health, regardless of whether you want to improve or maintain it. We, understandably, often associate literacy with reading comprehension. In the mental health and greater health context, literacy covers much more ground while also creating an opportunity for the following: 

    Mental Health Literacy can allow us to treat ourselves better 

    During personal rough patches, it can be easy to get discouraged about how we feel and how to fix it, especially if you live in a community with insufficient mental health support. Mental health literacy doesn’t shy away from hardship. Rather, it opens the channel of self-compassion by acknowledging informal feelings or more formal symptoms, as well as the potential circumstances that cause them.  

    This acknowledgement can be the catalyst to seeking care, which is also part of mental health literacy. Knowing what’s in your area and who can help you (i.e. a doctor, a family member, a trusted colleague or boss, etc.) can be the difference in whether you receive care or not. This is incredibly important, as up to 70% of individuals who need mental health treatment fail to access the services they need. 

    Mental Health Literacy can help us develop empathy toward others 

    Mental health literacy isn’t only important for those experiencing a mental health disorder or issue. It can be just as impactful if you know someone who could use support or services. Understanding varying degrees of mental health can make a notable difference in reaching out to someone you think might be struggling, or if someone comes to you as a trusted peer.  

    The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of a situation that impacted everyone’s mental health in different ways. While some may have been less impacted than others, it’s the awareness of these different levels of impact that might have made the difference in the type of support provided or received. This empathy certainly plays a major role in mental health literacy. 

    Mental Health Literacy can shape our conversations on mental health 

    The stories of those we don’t know, or what we see in media, can have a negative impact on mental health stigma if literacy is lacking. In depictions of mental health focused stories, terms like “crazy” or “psychotic” are damaging blanket terms that disregard the nuances of mental health disorders and depersonalize the individual experiencing a struggle. It’s also damaging to generalize characteristics as disorders (i.e. calling someone “bipolar” if they express anger or “OCD” if they’re being meticulous).  

    Literacy allows us to keep the focus on the person first and their experiences second. Misused terminology maintains the barrier of stigma that some who need care can’t overcome. Mental health literacy can break down that barrier. 


    Mental health literacy is necessary to better treat ourselves and others. The more we amplify its importance, the more likely individuals who need mental health care will be ready to receive it.  

    To learn more about mental health terminology, check out this video from Psych Hub and their other videos on mental health 

    If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 

    The information on this website is not intended to be medical advice. Medical advice can only be provided by your personal health care provider.