Health literacy is the degree to which people can access, process, understand, use and communicate health information, including information about available resources and services, in ways that help them make good decisions about their health.
Literacy in mental health and substance use also includes the following:
- Being able to recognize mental health and substance use issues or disorders
- Attitudes that promote recognition of challenges and asking for help
- Knowing the risk factors and causes of mental health and substance use issues
- Knowing how to get information about mental health and addiction challenges, including self-care techniques and the professional help available
Mental health and substance use issues affect everyone. This year, one in five people will experience a mental health or substance use challenge severe enough to interfere with daily living.
In spite of how common these struggles are, it can be difficult for people to know what to do when they experience a mental health or substance use challenge. Some people struggle to find the right words to describe how they feel. It can be even harder to find the right person to talk to. These challenges can prevent people from understanding their struggles and getting the help that they need.
Mental health and substance use literacy is a key part of overcoming these challenges, making it a vital resource for people's daily living. It is valuable wherever people live, learn, work, worship and play.
"Enhancing mental health literacy involves more than simply providing people with information — it involves support for skill development and empowerment so that people can understand information and make informed decisions about how to apply it to promote mental health." – Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health
Improving mental health literacy through promotion and education empowers people by helping them develop the skills they need to care for themselves, make good health care decisions, and access the resources they need.
Higher levels of mental health literacy also help people identify possible issues when they arise and be more open to getting help when they need it.
Mental health literacy is also important for reducing stigma. Poor understanding of mental health can lead to discrimination and unhealthy coping behaviours, and prevent people from asking for help.
Mental health literacy is for everyone — not just those living with a mental health or substance use disorder. Whether we are including the voices of people with lived experience in support of education, providing care to patients or clients, or offering support to people we love, we can all play a role in helping others feel empowered to navigate the health system and to take control of their own health.
People should be able to easily understand how information affects them. Plain language is an effective strategy for clearly communicating health information and improving health literacy.
When you are talking with people about mental health, avoid clinical, academic or scientific language whenever you can. Instead, provide information in plain language and in ways that are accessible to everyone.