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Mental health literacy among young people in a small US town: recognition of disorders and hypothetical helping responses


Ms Dudley P. Olsson, Virginia Treatment Center for Children, PO Box 980489, Richmond, VA 23298, USA. Email:


Aim: Mental health literacy may be a factor in early detection and prompt treatment for mental, emotional and behavioural disorders among young people. Building on previous research in Australia, this study assessed aspects of mental health literacy among adolescents in classrooms in a small town in the eastern USA.

Methods: The students were provided brief, hypothetical, gender-matched scenarios about adolescents experiencing negative emotions and exhibiting related behaviours; some scenarios depicted diagnosable disorders. The respondents were asked to characterize each scenario as describing a mental health problem or other teen problem and indicate how they would respond to a peer who had such a problem.

Results: Overall levels of recognition of mental disorders were low (27.5% identified anxiety and 42.4% identified depression as ‘a mental health problem or illness’). However, the respondents who recognized a disorder were three to four times more likely than those who did not to say they would take some helping action, such as telling an adult about the problem (depression: odds ratio 3.27; CI 1.43–7.46, anxiety: OR 4.43; CI 2.23–8.79). Few students (27.7%) remembered in-class discussions of mental health, a mandated health topic for schools in their area.

Conclusions: There appears to be substantial room for improvement in mental health literacy among young people, and the development of interventions to enhance mental health literacy among students may be justified.

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