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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Is British Columbia a World Leader in Mental Health Literacy?

Irving Rootman, PhD

Reprinted from the "Health Literacy" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (2), pp. 5-6

I am delighted to be invited to be the guest editor of this issue of Visions on the topic of “health literacy”. The last time I was invited to submit an article to Visions was about ten years ago when I was asked submit something on the topic of “Health Literacy and Management of Chronic Health Conditions”1

Since then the field of health literacy has grown considerably in Canada and throughout the world.2 However, with a couple of exceptions, the focus has been mainly on general Health Literacy rather than Mental Health Literacy. The exceptions appear to be Australia and Canada, which were the only two out of 34 countries in a survey about Health Literacy that mentioned “Mental Health Literacy” in their responses. Moreover, the examples reported from Canada are quite recent, suggesting that it is a fairly new area of activity.

It is also interesting to note that the 2004 United States Institute of Medicine Report on Health Literacy3 contained no references to “Mental Health Literacy” whereas the Canadian Expert Panel on Health Literacy Report4 issued four years later, contained several, one of which was a report on Health Literacy by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health.5

That report defined health literacy as “the knowledge and skills that enable people to access, understand and apply information for mental health” The report further suggested that:

“ . . . enhancing mental health literacy involves more than simply providing people with information--it involves support for skill development and empowerment so that people can understand information and make informed decisions about how to apply it to promote mental health.”

This health promotion perspective on mental health literacy is reflected in the comments by Dan Reist in this issue of Visions who adds the notion of health literacy as a “resource or asset” and a way to enable individuals to exert more control over health and the factors that affect it. Interestingly, most of the other papers in this issue also reflect this perspective in some way, although some of them also take a more clinical or medical approach to mental health literacy which is important as well.

The papers in this issue also recognize that individuals are not totally responsible for their own mental health literacy. Families, friends, health practitioners, health institutions, service providers, schools, voluntary organizations, the media, governments and other bodies also have a critical role to play in improving and maintaining individuals’ mental health literacy and well-being.

In that regard, it is interesting to note that the recent international report on health literacy noted above mentions a number of B.C. initiatives related to supporting health literacy. For example, it mentions the 2003 mental health and addictions information plan to improve mental health and substance use literacy among all British Columbians and the resulting establishment of the “British Columbia Partners for Mental Health & Addictions” coalition that includes non-profit mental health and addictions agencies and among other things, develops and disseminates mental health information to residents of this province. As part of this mandate, the “B.C. Partners” produced an outstanding article in this issue on “Evaluating Mental Health and Substance Use Information”. Being able to evaluate health information in general, and mental health information in particular, is an extremely important element of health literacy given the increasing amount of health information that is now available over the internet and from other sources.

Other mental health literacy examples from B.C. cited in the international report include: Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre; Provincial Child and Youth Healthy Living Initiative; Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders Mental Health Literacy Initiative; Cross-Cultural Mental Health Literacy Initiatives; Mental Health Literacy School-Based Initiatives; and expansion and redesign of

Thus, there is no question that British Columbia is an international leader in Mental Health Literacy and Mental Health Promotion and that this issue of Visions is one more example of the important role that this province is playing and could continue to play in this rather neglected, but nevertheless important field. I therefore recommend that you read it from beginning to end and make your own contribution to promoting the health literacy of yourself, your family, your community, your workplace, the organizations that you are part of, your province, country and the world.

About the author
Irving Rootman is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Gerontology at Simon Fraser University and Chair of the B.C. Health Literacy Network
  1. Rootman, I, (2003). Health Literacy and Chronic Health Conditions. Visions, 18, Summer.
  2. Pleasant, A. (2012). Health Literacy Around the World: Part I, Accessed on October 12, 2012 at
  3. Nielsen-Bohlman, L., Panzer, A.M., & Kindig, D.A. (Eds.) (2004). Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  4. Rootman, I., and Gordon-El-Bihbety, D., (2008), A Vision for a Health Literate Canada: Report of the Expert Panel on Health Literacy, Ottawa: Canadian Public Health Association.
  5. Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (2007). Mental Health Literacy in Canada. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from
  6. Ibid, p. 2.

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