How to Up Your Mental Health Literacy

On the heels of the annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign, there’s been a lot of discussion about raising awareness of mental illness.

Awareness campaigns may have achieved some positive gains, but they can also fan the flames of misunderstanding, especially when they are not combined with evidence-based interventions that include a deeper examination of mental health and mental illness, or what Halifax psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher calls “mental health literacy.”

Mental health literacy is knowing the difference between mental illness and normal negative emotions. “People are confusing the two, and they’re using meaningless phrases like “mental-health issues,’” says Dr. Kutcher. “If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you wouldn’t say you have a “breast-health issue.” If we’re talking about mental illness, let’s call it mental illness.”

Dr. Kutcher is a newly minted senator and the former Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health at Dalhousie University and the IWK. He founded TeenMentalHealth.org, which provides free resources to boost mental health literacy among kids, families and professionals.

Call it what it is

Describing normal negative emotions as mental illnesses can lead people to seek treatment when it’s not needed. “It’s like the difference between having a cold and having pneumonia,” Dr. Kutcher says. “You feel tired and crummy in both cases, but one you can treat on your own and the other you need to see a doctor.”

For example, “depression” is not the same thing as having a bad day. “Anxiety disorder” is not the same thing as feeling stressed before an exam. “Panic disorder” is not the same thing as feeling afraid. And “OCD” is not the same thing as being super organized.

“But using those words can drive people to seek treatment in a system that’s inadequately funded and inadequately delivered as it is,” says Dr. Kutcher. “When the number of people seeking help increases, it becomes harder for people who truly need help to get the care they need.”

Limited resources for mental illness

Labelling everyday emotions as symptoms of mental illness can also trivialize people who are suffering – and may keep them from getting the kind of help they need. “When athlete Clara Hughes talks about having depression, she’s talking about having an actual mental illness,” Dr. Kutcher says.

“Someone listening to her might say, ‘Well, I was feeling depressed yesterday, so I must have depression too. A hot bath helped me. That would help her, too.’ The treatment for a major depressive episode is medication and psychotherapy, not a hot bath. This kind of thinking can discourage a person from seeking effective treatment.”

Building kids’ resiliency

Dr. Kutcher says confusion about mental illness starts early. “Teenagers are learning the language of pathology and people don’t take the time to teach them what the words mean. Often, people don’t know themselves.”

Adding to the problem is that parents and caregivers often try to shelter kids from negative emotions and stress. “Kids are taught that all stress is bad for them and they start using the language of pathology to describe the normal stress signals they have,” Dr. Kutcher saBut in order to learn how to handle stress, kids need to experience it. “The purpose of stress is to get ready to take on a challenge or seize an opportunity,” says Dr. Kutcher. “It’s about adapting to difficult circumstances and facing challenge after challenge, opportunity after opportunity, and successfully dealing with it. It builds their coping capacity.”

The same advice applies to adults, too, though it’s tempting find solutions elsewhere. “Look at all the products that sell us wellness and a stress-free life,” Dr. Kutcher says. “They create huge profits for people and also create a society that looks to those products instead of engaging with the challenges and opportunities life brings us. We have the capacity to deal with things ourselves in a more beneficial way than buying worthless products.”

Investing in mental health

For Dr. Kutcher, boosting mental health literacy doesn’t end with strengthening people’s knowledge about mental health and mental illness – it’s also about recognizing the need to put more investments and human resources in the field.

“Changes in stigma follow changes in knowledge,” he says. “If we don’t enhance our mental health literacy, then we don’t go to the necessary next steps, which are improving access to care and delivering the best evidence-based care.”

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