AHS 105 - Mental Health Literacy

Margaret Lyn McBeath

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Table of contents

Introduction to Mental Health Literacy

Mental Health Literacy

The Canadian Public Health Association has defined health literacy as

“The ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course”
(Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008, p. 11)

Note the keywords here: access, understand, evaluate, communicate.

In 1990s, Anthony Jorm bridged the gap between health literacy and mental health by introducing new term Mental Health Literacy: (Jorm 2012; Jorm, 2015; Kutcher, Wei, Coniglio, 2016)

  • How to recognize mental health disorders
  • How to reduce mental illness stigma
  • How and when to seek help for mental health concerns and for maintaining good mental health and well-being
  • How to respond to others with mental health concerns
  • How to prevent mental health concerns from developing into a mental illness

Check Mental Health First Aid. Check this youtube video: R U OK?.

Note that only health professionals are qualified to diagnose a mental illness.

Defining Mental Health and Mental Illness

Early in mid-19th century, biomedical model was used, which separates mind and body. Then later in 1977, Dr. George Engel developed the Biopsychosocial Model (BPS) of Health, in which we see that mental health is in the intersection of three sections: biological, social & environmental, psychological.

Now consider holistic model in eastern cultures, which does not separate mind and body. Indigenous peoples also hold holistic view towards health. And they believe in connectedness: Everything is related to something else.

WHO defines health in a holistically way:

“a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”
(WHO, 1948; HealthKnowledge, 2017)

Then we can proceed to define the mental health.


a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Canadian Mental Health Association

Mental health is more than the absence of a mental health condition or illness: it is a positive sense of well-being, or the capacity to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.

Note that mental health is not a discrete value, namely in \(GF(2) \). Instead, it can be viewed as a value lying in a continuous interval.

In 2002, Corey Keyes introduced the Two Continuum Model of mental health and mental illness. The model is like a Cartesian plane: positive \(x \)-axis represents symptoms of a mental health condition, while negative \(x \)-axis represents no symptoms; positive \(y\)-axis indicates positive mental health, and negative \(y\)-axis is the opposite. With this model, we can draw conclusion as Dr. Sarah Brunnell (2020) states,

The absence of mental illness is NOT the same thing as the presence of mental wellness.

Two resources:

Also note the difference between mental distress, mental health problems, and mental illness (mental health disorder).

‘Mental health problems and illnesses’ represent the range of behaviours, thoughts and emotions that can result in some level of distress or impairment in areas such as school, work, social and family interaction and the ability to live independently.
(Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2016)

Check Distinguishing Mental Illness From Everyday Stress.

Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders

the number of persons with common mental disorders globally is going up particularly in lower-income countries because the population is growing and more people are living to the age when depression and anxiety most commonly occurs.
(World Health Organization, 2017)

See Statistics Canada for mental health in Canada.

Mental Health Vocabulary

Note that the words we are using towards mental health can have a huge impact on people with mental illness. As stated on the Mental Health Foundation blog, Why the language we use to describe mental health matters:

Words are a barrier to help-seeking and a motivator for making discrimination acceptable.
(Kousoulis, 2019)

An example of word recommendation is to avoid saying suffering from xxx, but living with xxx.

There are some DOs and DON’Ts in Guidelines for Nonhandicapping Language in APA Journals.

Remember to use people-first language unless different preference.

Mental Health Resources and Supports

Note that there are many campus resources and off-campus resources which are typically included at the end of every course outline.

Understanding Mental Wellness

Defining Wellness and Well-being

From National Wellness Institute, wellness is

an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.

Note that there is no universal definition of wellness, and well-being. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines well-being as

a positive outcome that is meaningful for people and for many sectors of society, because it tells us that people perceive that their lives are going well”
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018)

To measure well-being, researchers makes a clear separation between subjective and objective well-being. Subjective can be divided into psychological, emotional and social.

Around 2000, Martin Seligman developed PERMA framework of well-being, which include Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. The result of attending to these five dimensions is what Seligman refers to as flourishing. Simply: flourishing means “feeling good about a life in which you are functioning well” (Keyes, 2015).

For now, it’s important to recognize that an individual can be flourishing with or without a mental health condition.

Thriving extends beyond well-being, “the ultimate fulfillment in life” (Niemiec, 2019, p. 553).

Check on Seligman talking about flourishing.


There are several self-care models available, and the purpose of it is to remind ourselves to take care of our well-being.

  • self-care battery
  • seven pillars of self-care
  • set-point theory of well-being


Balancing our energy is important every day. The goal is to arrange our time schedule so that our energy is recovered on a regular basis.

There are several metaphors describing the balance:

  • see-saw metaphor
  • Yerkes-Dodson Curve
  • Leaky Bucket Metaphor
  • Spoons Metaphor

Nutrition and Sleep

Nutritional psychiatry recognizes that food affects not only your gut, it also affects your brain and your mood. Check this youtube video for the impact of nutrients. This video discusses the importance of sleep.

Physical activity

Physical activity is movement of the body by skeletal muscle resulting in energy expenditure.

Note that exercise is planned, maybe repetitive physical activity.

Also note that

  • Exercise has more impact on mental health than endorphins
  • physical activity can prevent mental health disorders
  • exercise can serve as a treatment for mood disorder symptoms
  • apply mindfulness in the context of physical activity

Mindful Breathing and Meditation

Do not dwell in the past,

do not dream of the future,

concentrate the mind on the present moment.

(Buddha, n.d.)

Mindfulness is a state of active attention to the present moment.

the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.
(Kabat-Zinn, n.d.)

The Science of Mindfulness

We can practice mindfulness in different ways: mindfulness meditation, five senses exercise, mindful breathing

Gratitude and Journaling

A gratitude practice involves intentionally and regularly spending time focusing on and appreciating positive aspects of life.

Journaling also helps reflect our own thoughts. One type is Naikan therapy.

Creative Expression

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Pablo Picasso, Spanish Artist


Nature has a wide range of benefits for mental and physical health. Some approaches:

  • Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing)
  • Sit Spot, possibly with youtube video when indoors
  • Gardening

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