Adia Harris, Contributing Writer
Before the age of five most children know their ABC’s, how to count, how to tie their shoes and even to stay away from strangers. Kids this age usually know how to tell their parents when they don’t physically feel well and will even point out ‘boo-boos.’ But when should we be expected to understand mental health, and what should we be expected to know?
Mental health seems to be a recent buzzword of sorts; for better and worse it’s been commonly thrust into the media spotlight. However, mainstream media often seems to assume that there is widespread understanding of mental health among the general public. Yet, research indicates many members of the public actually cannot recognize specific disorders or even different types of psychological distress—a key component of mental health literacy.
But what is mental health literacy, when should it be taught, and what should we know?
What is Mental Health Literacy?
The term mental health literacy (MHL) was coined in a 1997 study by Australian health psychologist Anthony F. Jorm and his research team, and is defined as having “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders that aids in their recognition, management or prevention.” So with a strong working definition, it should be easy to become more mentally literate, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it might seem.
Typing the phrase ‘teaching your child about…’ into Google yields diverse suggestions queued below it, ranging from God to money. But if you complete the phrase with the words ‘mental health’, very few website results come back with straightforward and comprehensive information on how to recognize, manage and prevent mental distress. This evident lack of readily available instructional information on MHL is shocking considering one in four individuals will suffer from a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime.
When Should We Become Literate?
Less than half of Americans can recognize anxiety according to a recent national web survey conducted by Michigan State University that quizzed nearly 4,600 participants on common mental health disorders in an effort to inform policymakers about mental health education needs. This kind of research underscores a more fundamental question: When should we learn about mental health anyway?
The fact of the matter is that it’s never too early or too late to learn about mental health. Experts suggest parents should definitely be talking to their kids about mental health and illness, and the earlier they start the conversation, the better.
To facilitate learning, we also should be advocating for an increase in mental health education in our schools. A decades-long study reported on by NPR found that by age 25, young adults who participated as children in programs that emphasize social and emotional learning, are more likely to succeed academically, are less likely to be incarcerated, and have fewer mental health and substance abuse issues. Considering the woefully disproportionate rates in which African Americans are negatively impacted by socioeconomic hardships like unemployment, incarceration and mental illness, there is no reason for MHL not to be a priority within black communities.
What Should We Know?
Despite the sparse literature available on MHL, one study identified four scientifically recognized areas of understanding and knowledge that provide a good roadmap for mental health literacy.
Knowing how to develop and maintain good mental health: Just like physical hygiene (i.e. using deodorant or brushing your teeth) it’s important to cultivate healthy mental hygiene. One way to greatly improve mental hygiene is by individuals learning to understand their own emotions and developing positive strategies to deal with them.
Recognizing and understanding mental disorders and treatments: A straightforward way for folks to improve mental health literacy is to research common mental health disorders to gain a basic understanding of both symptoms and treatments.
Dispelling feelings of stigma or misconceptions about mental illness: Self-educating about mental illnesses in order to know the facts from the myths is an extremely effective way to eliminate stigmatizing beliefs. Once you know the facts, don’t be afraid to speak up to inform others about misconceptions—knowledge is always power.
Improving help-seeking efficacy: First, know that seeking help for mental health is completely acceptable. Just like knowing when to see a doctor for a high fever, learn to identify mental health symptoms that require professional attention, and research mental health resources that are accessible to you.
Finding MHL Resources
When we have a strong understanding of mental health, we improve our own mental health outcomes in our communities. Here are a few resources to help increase your mental health literacy and help educate friends and family.