Mental health literacy needs accessible solutions

The stigma surrounding mental health disorders in the general public is so pervasive that it can actually keep patients from seeking out care. According to a survey conducted by, it is estimated that 87 percent of all people with mental health disorders have experienced some form of discrimination. Those numbers may be even higher, though, as patients may not be as forthright with their answers as they would be with a purely physical condition.

While they may have been clinically misunderstood in the past, mental health disorders are now eminently treatable and manageable conditions. However, the issue of patient health literacy and engagement becomes even larger when dealing with mental disorders that require near constant attention from patients. Breaking through the harmful stigma is the first step in improving treatment access rates, but to do so requires patient education of a significantly higher level than most providers might be used to.

Many patients find it difficult to talk about their mental health conditions.Many patients find it difficult to talk about their mental health conditions.

A look at the numbers
One of the biggest contributing factors to the stigma around mental health disorders is the general public's lack of knowledge on these conditions. Researchers at Binghamtom University and Temple University conducted a survey in 2011 where they found that only 53 percent of the unspecialized population could correctly identify the symptoms of a depressive episode. Furthermore, just 33.4 percent noted signs of obsessive compulsive disorder, 16.6 percent identified panic attacks and 8.8 percent spotted markers of social phobias.

This divide between clinical diagnoses and perceived disorders causes million of patients not to seek out care every year. The problem has existed for a while, too, though current patient education efforts have fallen short to address it. While certain factors such as a general unwillingness to discuss mental health problems and lack of funding can explain the high stigma and low education rates, the way in which many patients are taught about their conditions might be in need of upgrades. For example, the American Psychiatry Association, one of the country's leading institutions for mental health advocacy, provides pamphlets on its site that outline various psychological conditions. However, the information is generic, unspecific to individual types of patients and often written in clinical language.

In an interview with, Anthony Tobia, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Rutgers University and the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, explained how he uses multimedia and pop culture to show how mental health disorders are depicted by Hollywood films.

"Novel approaches are necessary to break through to patients in need."

Accessible approaches to mental health
Rote information rarely works when teaching patients about non-mental health disorders, so why should individuals already under duress be as or more accessible to this kind of education? Instead, novel approaches are necessary to break through to patients in need.

"When people are having fun doing something, especially when it comes to education, you are bringing that particular area of medicine alive for them," Tom Draschil, M.D., a colleague of Tobia's, told

The class, "Film Depictions to Learn Mental Disease," uses a curated list of movies that show realistic depictions of mental health disorders. Movies like "The Matrix" are used to demonstrate self-actualization, while episodes of the popular sitcom "Seinfeld" are regularly used to show examples of various neuroses. 

While it's not feasible to sit down with patients for a feature-length film and point out the ways in which mental health disorders can affect them, Tobia's class emphasizes the effectiveness of using non-standard ways to educate medically naive individuals: Though he had only 50 students in the 2014 class, he is currently teaching to more than 350.

Providers looking for ways to break through to patients with mental health disorders should take Tobia's lessons to heart, though implementing patient education solutions that leverage multimedia are high-level talents that not all healthcare marketing firms can achieve. Organizations need to partner with experienced and flexible marketing agencies for real results.