Recommendation 22 Literature Review Summary

Key Points

  • Mental health literacy encompasses knowledge about mental health symptoms, interventions, and resources available, as well as positive attitudes and willingness to intervene when others are struggling.
  • Literacy campaigns targeted at mental health have been positively received in post-secondary institutions, though it is unclear how they might affect behavioural outcomes.
  • Mental health training can improve knowledge, attitudes and self-efficacy. However, improvements often diminish over time, and it is unclear how actual gatekeeping behaviours are affected.
  • Barriers to participating in training programs include lack of awareness, time constraints, resource limitations, and uncertainty about the benefits of training.

Literature Review Findings

Mental health literacy is broadly defined as knowledge of mental health symptoms, interventions, and resources available, as well as positive attitudes and self-efficacy toward helping others in need. Many students were aware of counselling services and symptoms related to depression, but fewer recognized other campus resources and types of mental health conditions. Health promotion and prevention of mental health issues were under-recognized; students only endorsed help-seeking actions when symptoms were severe. Additionally, students experiencing high levels of depression and distress were less likely to recognize symptoms of mental illness than others.

Various mental health literacy campaigns have been implemented in post-secondary settings. Feedback collected through focus groups and surveys tended to be positive, though response rates were often low and outcomes following exposure were minimal. Campaigns utilizing visual promotion materials are more effective when they are designed appealingly and with a student audience in mind. There is also a need for campaigns targeted at groups at higher risk of experiencing mental distress, such as LGBTQ+ and racialized student groups.

Mental health training programs are associated with short-term increases in self-reported knowledge, attitudes, and self-efficacy. However, there is mixed evidence supporting changes to actual behaviours; (quasi-)experimental studies found few differences in skills following training. Training programs that included components such as experiential learning exercises and scenarios tailored to post-secondary settings were the most effective at improving outcomes. Limitations of studies on training programs include low participation and response rates, lack of long-term follow-up assessments, and the use of instruments that have not been empirically validated.  

Faculty, staff and students described barriers to participating in training programs, such as lack of awareness about training opportunities, limited time and resources, and uncertainty about the benefits of training given the role of the person. Support from peers and leaders in the community was a strong enabling factor for participating in training.

Implications for Practice 

Mental health literacy campaigns need to be embedded into a larger policy and service framework that emphasizes health promotion and prevention as well as intervention and crisis management. Tailored campaigns for high risk groups, such as minority student populations and those experiencing high levels of mental distress, are recommended.

As part of a mental health literacy strategy, training programs need to be available to all members of the university community. Training programs that are specialized for post-secondary settings, incorporate experiential exercises, and which receive institutional resources and ongoing support, are likely to have the most impact.