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Open Access Research article

Mental health literacy and attitudes in a Swedish community sample – Investigating the role of personal experience of mental health care

Karin M Dahlberg12*, Margda Waern3 and Bo Runeson1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Section for Psychiatry St. Göran, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Psychiatry, Central Hospital, Skövde, Sweden

3 Department of Psychiatry and Neurochemistry, Sahlgrenska Academy at Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden

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

Published: 9 January 2008



Mental ill health is a common condition in the general population, yet only about half of those with a mental disorder have treatment contact. Personal experience may affect attitudes, which in turn influence the help-seeking process. This study investigated differences in mental health literacy and attitudes among mentally healthy persons and in persons with symptoms of mental illness with and without treatment contact.


A postal screening questionnaire was sent to a random sample of the general population aged 20–64 in the county of Skaraborg, Sweden in order to ascertain mental health status and history of treatment contact; 3538 responded (49%). Face-to-face interviews were carried out in random sub samples of mentally healthy persons (n = 128) and in mentally ill persons with (n = 125) and without (n = 105) mental health care contact. Mental health literacy and attitudes to treatment were assessed using questions based on a vignette depicting a person with depression. Past month mental disorder was diagnosed according to the Schedule for Clinical Assessment in Neuropsychiatry (SCAN).


Two thirds failed to recognize depression in a vignette; recognition was equally poor in mentally healthy persons and in persons with symptoms of mental illness with and without treatment contact. In response to an open-ended question concerning appropriate interventions, one third suggested counselling and only one percent proposed antidepressant treatment. Again, proportions were similar in all groups. Persons with a history of mental health contact more often suggested that a GP would provide the best form of help. When presented with a list of possible interventions, those with a history of mental health contact were more positive to medical interventions such as antidepressants, hypnotics, and inpatient psychiatric treatment. When asked about the prognosis for the condition described in the vignette, persons with treatment contact were less likely to believe in full recovery without intervention; mentally ill without treatment contact were more optimistic.


Mental health literacy, specially concerning attitudes towards interventions is associated with personal history of mental health care.