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Age differences in mental health literacy

Louise Farrer1*, Liana Leach1, Kathleen M Griffiths1, Helen Christensen1 and Anthony F Jorm2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Mental Health Research, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, 0200, Australia

2 ORYGEN Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, Locked Bag 10, Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia

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BMC Public Health 2008, 8:125  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-125

Published: 20 April 2008



The community's knowledge and beliefs about mental health problems, their risk factors, treatments and sources of help may vary as a function of age.


Data were taken from an epidemiological survey conducted during 2003–2004 with a national clustered sample of Australian adults aged 18 years and over. Following the presentation of a vignette describing depression (n = 1001) or schizophrenia (n = 997), respondents were asked a series of questions relating to their knowledge and recognition of the disorder, beliefs about the helpfulness of treating professionals and medical, psychological and lifestyle treatments, and likely causes.


Participant age was coded into five categories and cross-tabulated with mental health literacy variables. Comparisons between age groups revealed that although older adults (70+ years) were poorer than younger age groups at correctly recognising depression and schizophrenia, young adults (18–24 years) were more likely to misidentify schizophrenia as depression. Differences were also observed between younger and older age groups in terms of beliefs about the helpfulness of certain treating professionals and medical and lifestyle treatments for depression and schizophrenia, and older respondents were more likely to believe that schizophrenia could be caused by character weakness.


Differences in mental health literacy across the adult lifespan suggest that more specific, age appropriate messages about mental health are required for younger and older age groups. The tendency for young adults to 'over-identify' depression signals the need for awareness campaigns to focus on differentiation between mental disorders.