Mental Health Literacy: Framing It All

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By The Educator Collaborative Associate Member Stefani Boutelier

I was recently at an event centered on the State of the Child where the keynote speaker used the phrase “mental health literacy.” I questioned if I was the only one who hadn’t framed my thinking and conversations about mental health as a literacy. As I thought about this more and asked around, I realized I wasn’t the only one (phew). So I bring with this post a request to converse about the concept of mental health literacy. 

I won’t bring forth all the research, since you can quickly Google or chat with a few other educators to understand that considerations around mental health are on the rise. This includes an increase in the recognition and documentation of mental health-related incidents (on behalf of both students and adults), in trainings that are offered around the concept, and in a focus on general well-being. Clearly, we need to increase our competency to recognize and understand mental health literacy as educators, teachers, parents, friends, allies, and humans.

Why frame mental health as a literacy? And how does that change the conversation around it? A literacy provides us with a fundamental form of communication around a particular topic. If we consider the concept of mental health through the lens of a “literacy,” then we can evaluate how we use the terms associated with it and–perhaps–reconsider not only how we listen to folks talk about it, but how we ourselves read, write, and speak about it. 

Ross Szabo, Wellness Director of the Geffen Academy at UCLA, defines mental health literacy as “knowledge about mental health disorders that are associated with their recognition, management, and prevention.” He identifies the need to separate emotions versus disorders (e.g., feeling nervous v. having an anxiety disorder; feeling sad v. being clinically depressed). Emotions run through all of us, and if we are quick to misuse the literacy of labeling emotions as mental health disorders, then we do a disservice and often miss out on supporting those who need help.

Szabo organizes the language needed for mental health literacy (Fig. 1). For the sake of inclusivity, I’ve added additional layers. One example that demonstrates the need for a literacy around this is the misunderstanding of comorbidity, or the existen Based on the table below, someone who has both a developmental disability and a mental health disorder experiences what is commonly considered a comorbid disorder (e.g., when someone who simultaneously experiences ADHD and anxiety). Understanding this plays a large role in how one–for example, an educator– might support a student when there may be a misunderstanding of where the symptom is rooted (e.g., Is it rooted around social anxiety, or is it an ADHD response to the content? Or is it both?).

Fig. 1: Mental Health Literacy. Image courtesy of the author.

There is no question that the current mental health crisis runs parallel with the infiltration of technology in our lived experiences. This crisis overlaps with waves of loneliness, epigenetics, trauma, digital addiction–I won’t go on. Escapism through technology–in particular, with social media or gaming**–is often interpreted as a coping mechanism; yet how does it interact with other behaviors? If coping mechanisms fall under mental health literacy and are something all could benefit from, then this might be a topic we could align to SEL (Social Emotional Learning) curriculum. 

[**Author’s note: I am fascinated that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized a digital gaming disorder at a time when e-sports is growing. The exploration of digital addition no doubt needs its own blog piece.]

I’ve only named two examples where we might consider mental health as a literacy. Recognizing this as a concept would have implications for ongoing professional development, our self-care, and our collective advocacy. Continuing to develop our mental health literacy will help us to reject the idea of mental health challenges as weaknesses and, rather, frame mental health literacy as a necessary knowledge base. Please add your thoughts in the comments below.