A Different Approach to Measuring Mental Health Literacy

This semester, one of the assignments for PSYC 406: Psychological Tests at McGill University is to develop our own psychological test, get people to fill it out, and then analyze the results. For this assignment, I chose mental health literacy (MHL) as my topic. Before starting, I did not know that there were pre-existing scales to measure MHL such as the Mental Health Literacy Scale developed by O’Connor & Casey (2015).

Looking through some of the empiric literature around MHL, I was taken aback by how MHL is often defined. According to Jorm (2000), MHL means the “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders that aid in their recognition, management, or prevention.” What is important to note about this definition is the exclusive focus on mental illness as opposed to mental health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes [their] own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to [their] community” (2016). A question that comes to mind is how can something titled as MHL can actually measure MHL, when the commonly used definition of MHL doesn’t draw on existing definitions of mental health? This question ultimately brings me to seriously doubt the construct validity of any scale claiming to measure MHL that defines MHL as solely as the ability to correctly label, cope with, and/or prevent forms of psychopathology.

I think that the attention given to mental illness within the definition of MHL largely speaks to how mental illness is colloquially understood by many throughout North American society. What I mean by this is that I get the impression that when people talk about mental health, they commonly use mental health either as a synonym or as an antonym of mental illness. This is problematic for me because it frames mental health and mental illness within the binary of a person being able to only have one, but not the other. In other words, it’s analogous to saying that the absence of illness is sufficient for health which contrasts with the WHO’s understanding that “health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (2016). Moreover, a binary understanding of mental health is ultimately inaccurate. Such an understanding of mental health doesn’t take into account the fact that everyone has mental health, but not everyone has a mental illness.

A broader view of MHL is shown in Potvin-Boucher et al.’s (2010) definition of MHL. According to them, MHL is “providing [individuals] with information, support, skills, and resources that will help them cope with the pressures and challenges they face.” I ultimately like this definition of MHL a lot more than how MHL is traditionally defined because I think it better relates to the WHO’s conceptualization of mental health. I tried to incorporate a broader understanding of MHL into my own test for this assignment in order to hopefully improve the construct validity. I haven’t had the chance to look over the data that I have collected so far, but am both curious and looking forward to doing so because it will be interesting to see the participants’ responses!

Works Cited

Jorm, A. F. (2000). Mental Health Literacy: Public beliefs and knowledge about mental disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry, 177, 396–401.

O’Connor, M., & Casey, L. (2015). The Mental Health Literacy Scale (MHLS): A new- scale-based measure of mental health literacy. Psychiatry Research, 229, 511- 516.

Potvin-Boucher, J., Szumilas, M., Sheikh, T., & Kutcher, S. (2010). Transitions: A mental health literacy program for postsecondary students. Journal of College Student Development, 51(6), 723–727.

WHO. 2016. Mental health: A state of well-being. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/

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