Mental Health Literacy: Would You be a Good Psychiatrist?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Mental Health Literacy: Would You be a Good Psychiatrist?

Insanity is a kind of innocence. (Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955)

A paranoid is a person in full possession of the facts. (William Burroughs, Independent on Sunday, 1997)

Would you know if a colleague was suffering with depression, or whether they were a schizophrenic or a psychopath? Can you recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness? And if you were to believe a friend or colleague were ’in trouble’ what would you advise them to do? In short, are you knowledgeable and literate about mental illnesses?

The term ’mental health literacy’ (MHL) was introduced 20 years ago. It includes the ability to recognize specific disorders, knowledge about the causes and risk factors, and knowledge of the help available. Mental health literacy is important as it can ensure that mental disorders are recognized early, and the appropriate help-seeking behaviour is encouraged.

Social psychiatrists have been very active in this area trying to find out what illnesses and disorders are more easily recognized than others and what the strong clues are for individuals.

Test yourself:

Read each of the five stories below and answer about the person X. Then answer the following questions: What, if anything, would you say is X’s main problem? How distressing do you think it would be to have X’s condition? How sympathetic would you be towards someone with X’s problem? In general, how happy do you think X is? In general, how successful at their work do you think X is? In general, how satisfying do you think X’s personal relationships are?

1 Kerry is 24 years old. Recently, she has been having trouble getting out of bed; she randomly burst into tears at the dinner table a couple of days ago and had to be excused. That didn’t really matter to her because she wasn’t hungry anyway. She saw her future as very bleak and believed she would never be accepted by any graduate school and that she would never again find anyone she would love.

2 Terry is 50 years old and lives alone. He has for many years had virtually no conversational contacts with other human beings except to say ’hello’ or ’how are you’. He reads newspapers avidly and is well informed in many areas, but he has no interest in the people around him. He prefers to be by himself, finds talk a waste of time and feels awkward when people initiate a relationship. He works as a security guard and is known by his co-workers as ’loner’ or ’cold fish’. After a while, they no longer even notice him or tease him since he never seems to notice or care about their teasing anyway. He considers himself different from other people and regards emotionality in others as strange. He experienced the death of his parents without emotion and feels no regret whatsoever at being completely out of contact with the rest of his family.

3 Rose is 17 years old and lives at home. She is very shy and doesn’t socialize much with her work colleagues. One of the reasons for this is that she never goes out to parties or clubs for fear that they might be dirty and contaminated. If she does go out, it would only be to a place she knows well and even then she would avoid touching anything as much as possible. She always carries an antibacterial soap with her which she uses often. She avoids shaking hands and touching door handles and coins since many people before her have touched them. Rose’s biggest fear is that she would be responsible in some way for harm done to vulnerable people, especially children and the elderly, and finds it difficult to visit her sister and her newborn niece. Rose’s fear causes her great anxiety, so she engages in cleaning and checking her behaviours to relax herself.

4 Up until a year ago, life was pretty okay for Rachel. But then, things started to change. She thought that people around her were making disapproving comments and talking behind her back. Rachel was convinced that people were spying on her and that they could hear what she was thinking. Rachel lost her drive to participate in her usual work and family activities and retreated to her home, eventually spending most of her day in her room. Rachel was hearing voices even though no one else was around. These voices told her what to do and what to think. She has been living this way for six months.

Answers: 1. Depression, 2. Social Phobia, 3. OCD, 4. Schizophrenia

Previous studies relating to mental health literacy have found that people have difficulty recognizing mental disorders when they are described in a vignette, like those above, and many people hold common misconceptions, for example that schizophrenia involves a ’split personality’. With regards to specific disorders, it is found that correct recognition rates of depression and schizophrenia were around 70 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

A number of studies have shown that both younger and more educated people have more informed beliefs about mental disorders. Females are also better informed than males. MHL comes from wide reading and academic study and/or extensive contact with people with mental disorders. The more exposure to the mental illness and its symptoms and the more educated people are in general — as well as in the mental health disciplines — the more they know. However, what the studies do show, is how surprisingly ignorant they often are with respect to cause and cure.


Furnham, A., & Swami, V. (2018). Mental health literacy: A review of what it is and why it matters. International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, 7, 240—57.

Jorm, A.F. (2012). Mental health literacy: empowering the community to take action for better mental health. American Psychologist, 67, 231—43.

Jorm, A.F. (2015). Why do we need the concept of ’Mental Health Literacy’? Health Communication, 30, 1166—1168.