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Mental health literacy: a survey of the public's ability to recognise mental disorders and their beliefs about the effectiveness of treatment

Anthony F Jorm, Ailsa E Korten, Patricia A Jacomb, Helen Christensen, Bryan Rodgers and Penelope Pollitt
Med J Aust 1997; 166 (4): 182.

"Mental health literacy": a survey of the public's ability to recognise mental disorders and their beliefs about the effectiveness of treatment

Anthony F Jorm, Ailsa E Korten, Patricia A Jacomb, Helen Christensen, Bryan Rodgers and Penelope Pollitt

MJA 1997; 166: 182

Abstract - Introduction - Methods - Sample - Interview - Ethical approval - Results - Recognition - Choice and rating of available help - Prognosis - Discussion - References - Authors' details - ©MJA1997



Objectives: To assess the public's recognition of mental disorders and their beliefs about the effectiveness of various treatments ("mental health literacy").
Design: A cross-sectional survey, in 1995, with structured interviews using vignettes of a person with either depression or schizophrenia.
Participants: A representative national sample of 2031 individuals aged 18 -74 years; 1010 participants were questioned about the depression vignette and 1021 about the schizophrenia vignette.
Results: Most of the participants recognised the presence of some sort of mental disorder: 72% for the depression vignette (correctly labelled as depression by 39%) and 84% for the schizophrenia vignette (correctly labelled by 27%). When various people were rated as likely to be helpful or harmful for the person described in the vignette for depression, general practitioners (83%) and counsellors (74%) were most often rated as helpful, with psychiatrists (51%) and psychologists (49%) less so. Corresponding data for the schizophrenia vignette were: counsellors (81%), GPs (74%), psychiatrists (71%) and psychologists (62%). Many standard psychiatric treatments (antidepressants, antipsychotics, electroconvulsive therapy, admission to a psychiatric ward) were more often rated as harmful than helpful, and some non-standard treatments were rated highly (increased physical or social activity, relaxation and stress management, reading about people with similar problems). Vitamins and special diets were more often rated as helpful than were antidepressants and antipsychotics.
Conclusion: If mental disorders are to be recognised early in the community and appropriate intervention sought, the level of mental health literacy needs to be raised. Further, public understanding of psychiatric treatments can be considerably improved.

MJA 1997; 166: 182-186  


"Health literacy" has been defined as the ability to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.1 By extension, we have coined the term "mental health literacy" to refer to knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention. Mental health literacy includes the ability to recognise specific disorders; knowing how to seek mental health information; knowledge of risk factors and causes, of self-treatments, and of professional help available; and attitudes that promote recognition and appropriate help-seeking.

The lifetime risk of developing a mental disorder is so high (nearly 50%)2 that almost the whole population will at some time have direct experience of such a disorder, either in themselves or in someone close. A high public level of mental health literacy would make early recognition of and appropriate intervention in these disorders more likely.

Previous information on this topic is limited and is derived from national surveys on depression alone,3-5 or on depression and schizophrenia.6 Although these surveys found that most people believed depression to be treatable,3-5 most respondents had negative views about the effectiveness of medication for mental disorders. In contrast, counselling and psychotherapy were generally viewed more favourably.3,4,6

To assess the mental health literacy of the Australian population, we surveyed a representative national sample of adults on their knowledge of and beliefs about schizophrenia and depression. We report our findings on the ability of this population to recognise these disorders and their beliefs about the effectiveness of various treatments.  




The survey was carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in August 1995 as part of its Population Survey Monitor.7 This is a household survey covering all private dwellings in urban and rural areas (excluding the sparsely settled areas) across all States and Territories. Selected households were initially sent a letter explaining that their dwelling had been selected for the survey. The letters gave advance notice that an interviewer would call to make an appointment. Interviewers made at least three call-backs in rural areas and at least five in urban areas before a dwelling was classified as "non-contact". Contact was made with a sample of 2531 households, with one person randomly sampled per household for a personal interview; 2164 persons agreed to participate (85%). Because a pilot study showed that people aged more than 75 years often had trouble understanding the interview, this age group was excluded, leaving a sample of 2031 respondents, aged 18-74.

Fifty-six per cent of the sample was female and 74% Australian-born. The age distribution was: 21% aged 18-29, 25% aged 30-39, 22% aged 40-49, 16% aged 50-59, 11% aged 60-69 and 5% aged 70-74. The highest educational qualification was: secondary school certificate (51%), trade certificate/apprenticeship (11%), other certificate (17%), associate or undergraduate diploma (7%), bachelor's degree or higher (13%), still at school (1%). Weights were provided for each respondent, based on complex ratio estimation procedures, to adjust for probabilities of selection and to reduce non-response bias.7 Weighted percentages, which represent estimates of the whole of the Australian population aged 18-74, are presented here.  


The interview was based on a vignette of a person suffering from a mental disorder. Half the sample were shown a vignette describing a person who met ICD-108 and DSM-IV9 criteria for major depression ( Box 1) and the others were shown a vignette of a person who met ICD-108 and DSM-IV9 criteria for schizophrenia ( Box 2). The sex of the person described was randomly assigned to be male (John) or female (Mary).

After being shown the vignette and having it read out to them, respondents were asked two open-ended questions:

  • "What would you say, if anything, is wrong with John/Mary?" and

  • "How do you think John/Mary could best be helped?"

The rest of the interview consisted of questions to determine the respondents' knowledge of and views about:
  • Various people who could help (whether each category of person was likely to be helpful, harmful, or neither, for the person described);

  • A range of possible treatments (whether each treatment was likely to be helpful, harmful, or neither, for the person described);

  • Knowledge of likely prognosis;

  • Knowledge of risk factors; and

  • Beliefs associated with stigma and discrimination.

Ethical approval

Approval was obtained from the Ethics in Human Experimentation Committee of the Australian National University.

Statistical analysis
Using the chi-squared test, all estimates were compared according to recognition of a mental health problem. Only differences significant at the 0.01 level (P < 0.01) are reported below.  


Of the 2031 persons interviewed, 1010 were shown the depression vignette (508, John and 502, Mary) and 1021 were shown the schizophrenia vignette (514, John and 507, Mary).  


Figure 1 summarises responses to the question "What would you say, if anything, is wrong with John/Mary?", and shows those categories mentioned by at least 5% of the respondents (all responses were later categorised by the researchers). Multiple responses were allowed, and 30% of respondents gave at least two answers.

For the depression vignette, 39% correctly identified depression and 22% mentioned stress. In all, 72% mentioned a category that could be regarded as being within the sphere of mental health. Eleven per cent mentioned items that we categorised as physical disorders (e.g., viruses, nutritional deficiencies, cancer), and half of these respondents did not mention a mental problem. A further 17% gave only answers that were extremely variable, but which we grouped as "personal or employment-related problems", "problems with not being active or sociable enough", and "other". Seven per cent of the sample responded with "don't know".

For the schizophrenia vignette, although 84% mentioned at least one category in the sphere of mental health, only 27% recognised schizophrenia and a further 26% mentioned depression. Physical disorders were the only suggestion from 2% of the respondents, while 13% gave responses that described neither physical nor mental disorders (e.g., "has a problem"). There was less uncertainty with the schizophrenia vignette, however, in that only 4% responded with "don't know".  

Choice and rating of available help

For the second open-ended question -- "How do you think John/Mary could best be helped?" -- 34% of the respondents (across both vignettes) made more than one suggestion.

For the depression vignette, the most frequent response was "see a doctor" (44%), followed by "see a counsellor" (23%) and "talk over with family or friends" (20%). A psychiatrist was mentioned by 8%, while 5% answered "don't know".

Responses for the schizophrenia vignette were: counsellor (31%), psychiatrist (28%), doctor (27%), family or friends (20%) and "don't know" (4%).

The respondents were given a list of people who might potentially provide help and were asked to rate the various helpers by saying whether each would be helpful or harmful (Figure 2a).

For the depression vignette, most of the respondents regarded GPs (83%), counsellors (74%), close friends (73%) and close family (70%) as helpful; around half the population rated telephone counselling services (53%), psychiatrists (51%) and psychologists (49%) as helpful. Fewer than 10% felt that any of the above groups would be harmful, although 43% believed it would be harmful for someone with depression to deal with it on their own. For the schizo phrenia vignette, most respondents regarded counsellors (81%), GPs (74%) and psychiatrists (71%) as helpful; a larger proportion of the population than for the depression vignette believed it would be harmful to try and deal with such problems alone (55%).

Rating of pharmacological treatments
Respondents were given a list of pharmacological treatments (Figure 2b) to rate as helpful or harmful. For the depression vignette, more of the respondents regarded each of the medications as harmful than helpful. The exception was the category vitamins, minerals, tonics or herbal medicines, which were regarded as helpful by 57% of respondents, and as harmful by 3%. Antidepressant medication was recognised as helpful by 29% and as harmful by 42% of respondents. For the schizophrenia vignette, antidepressants were regarded as helpful by 38% of respondents, followed by vitamins and minerals (34%) and antipsychotics (23%). The greatest percentage of "don't know" responses was for antipsychotics (about one-fifth of the respondents for both vignettes).

Rating of non-pharmacological treatments
When respondents were asked to rate non-pharmacological treatments (Figure 2c), most (for both the depression and the schizophrenia vignettes) regarded non-standard interventions (more physical or social activity; learn relaxation [including stress management, meditation or yoga courses]; reading about people with similar problems) as helpful and not harmful. On the other hand, most regarded admission to a psychiatric ward as harmful (depression, 62%; schizophrenia, 51%) and most regarded having electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as harmful (depression, 72%; schizophrenia, 66%). For the depression vignette, psychotherapy was seen as helpful by 34% and harmful by 13%, compared with 55% helpful and 7% harmful for the schizophrenia vignette. The highest number of "don't know" responses was elicited for psychotherapy (16% for depression, 15% for schizophrenia) and for ECT (10% for depression and 14% for schizophrenia) (data not shown).

As opinions about treatment might vary according to whether or not the respondent thought the person in the vignette had a mental health problem, the respondents were divided accordingly. The major difference in findings was that those who did not perceive a mental health problem were more likely to rate treatments as "neither helpful nor harmful" or to respond "don't know" . However, the rank ordering of treatments in terms of helpfulness was generally similar. Spearman rank correlation coefficients for the depression vignette were 0.82 (people), 0.90 (medicines) and 0.98 (treatments), and for the schizophrenia vignette they were 0.87 (people), 0.71 (medicines) and 0.98 (treatments).  


All respondents were asked to give their views on prognosis with and without the professional help they thought most appropriate. For the depression vignette, 80% thought that there would be full recovery with help. If there was no help, 56% believed the person would get worse, and 5% that there would be full recovery. For the schizophrenia vignette, 69% believed that help would result in full recovery; if there was no help, 75% believed that the person would get worse, and 3% that there would be full recovery.  


Recognition of the presence of a mental disorder was high in our population sample, although only a minority gave the correct psychiatric label to their vignette. While it is not known whether there is any benefit to the public in being able to apply the correct psychiatric label, misidentifying a mental disorder as a physical one or as a problem unrelated to health may lead to inappropriate use or avoidance of health services. The major limitation in recognition is therefore seen in the 28% who thought the person described in the depression vignette did not have a mental disorder and the 16% who had the same opinion about the person in the schizophrenia vignette.

When respondents were asked about the helpfulness of various people, GPs were rated very highly for both vignettes. Only half the respondents thought that a psychiatrist or psychologist would be helpful for the person in the depression vignette, a proportion less than that cited for GPs, counsellors, close friends, family, and telephone counselling. While psychiatrists and psychologists were rated as relatively more helpful for the person in the schizophrenia vignette, they were nevertheless less likely to be rated as helpful than counsellors or GPs. This suggests that public perceptions of mental health specialists need to be changed.

Ratings given for the helpfulness of various treatments for depression are not consistent with the evidence of controlled trials, which have indicated that both antidepressant medication and psychotherapy are effective treatments. 10,11 Antidepressants were rated as helpful by 29% of our sample and as harmful by 42%, while psychotherapy was rated as helpful by 34% and harmful by 13%. Both were regarded as less helpful than treatments such as vitamins and minerals and special diets. The treatment with the highest negative rating was ECT. Although the patient described to the respondents could not be regarded as severely depressed enough to warrant ECT, 11 there is clearly a public perception that this treatment is harmful. The treatments that the public rated most highly were all non-standard in nature. These views may not be entirely misguided; there is evidence (e.g., from controlled trials) that physical exercise may have a positive effect on depression. 12

The findings were similar for the schizophrenia vignette. Although controlled trials show that antipsychotic medication is an effective treatment, 13 this was rated as helpful by 23% of the respondents and harmful by 34%; 20% did not offer an opinion. Similarly, admission to a psychiatric ward, which can be useful in the management of schizophrenia, 13 was rated as harmful by half the respondents. As with depression, non-standard interventions were the most likely to be rated as helpful.

Despite these negative opinions of, or ignorance about, the helpfulness of many standard treatments, the public clearly sees the conditions described in the vignettes as treatable. The predominant belief that mental disorders are treatable has also been found in overseas surveys, 3,4 although a United States survey found that most respondents believed it possible to get better through one's own efforts. 5

There were some marked differences in responses to the depression and schizophrenia vignettes in terms of recognition, perceived helpfulness of treatments and prognosis. These differences show that the respondents did not see all mental disorders as the same and recognised that the condition described in the schizophrenia vignette required more vigorous intervention.

Our results also indicate that the views of many members of the public diverge from those of health professionals, particularly mental health specialists. Such differences may lead to unwillingness to accept help from mental health professionals, or to a lack of adherence to advice given. Clearly, if mental disorders are to be recognised early and appropriate action taken, the level of mental health literacy in the population should be raised. There has been considerable interest in trying to improve the recognition and management of mental disorders in primary care, 10,14 but this knowledge needs to reach the consumers of services so that they can play a more effective role in the management of their own mental health.  


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(Received 22 Feb 1996, accepted 4 Nov, 1996)

Authors' details

NHMRC Social Psychiatry Research Unit, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT.
Anthony F Jorm, PhD, DSc, Deputy Director; Ailsa E Korten, BSc, Research Officer; Patricia A Jacomb, MSc, Research Assistant; Helen Christensen, PhD, Fellow; Bryan Rodgers, PhD, Fellow; Penelope Pollitt, PhD, Research Fellow.
No reprints will be available from the author.
Correspondence: Dr A F Jorm, NHMRC Social Psychiatry Research Unit, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200.
E-mail: Anthony.Jorm AT anu.edu.au

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<URL: http://www.mja.com.au/> © 1997 Medical Journal of Australia.

Anthony F Jorm
Ailsa E Korten
Patricia A Jacomb
Helen Christensen
Bryan Rodgers
Penelope Pollitt