As Health Literacy Month comes to an end, we must recognize the long journey that lies ahead in ensuring that people across the country receive health information they can both understand and act upon.
While health literacy encompasses a broad spectrum of health-related issues, its significance in mental health cannot be overstated. Recent data on depression and anxiety rates clearly show the urgency we all face in addressing this issue, as the well-being and health of our society are at stake.
Health literacy is the ability to find, understand and use health information to make informed decisions about one’s health. It goes beyond the ability to read and write; health literacy is about comprehending complex health concepts, navigating the ever-so-confusing healthcare system and effectively communicating with healthcare professionals. This is particularly important in the mental health arena as individuals often struggle with the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, leading to a notable lack of understanding and, subsequently, inadequate care.
According to numerous recent studies, anxiety and depression rates are surging nationwide, affecting individuals across all age groups, genders and backgrounds. On a fundamental level, when people lack the knowledge to recognize something isn’t right — the signs of mental health issues — then accessing appropriate support and understanding the benefits and potential side effects of various treatments all fall by the wayside. It hinders their ability to manage their health and condition effectively. This, in turn, results in a massive burden on individuals, families and society as a whole. Once, many people who are reading this know all too well.
In combating the mental health crisis in the United States, one essential tool we have at our disposal is to promote health information that’s as easy to access as it is to understand. To this end, health communicators, healthcare professionals and government agencies need to ensure that the information they are providing to people is presented in a clear and understandable manner.
One practical and quick way to assess the readability of written health materials is by using a readability score, like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level or the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (SMOG) index. These tools can be found for free online. They can help gauge the suitability of health information for various audiences and guide the creation of materials catering to different levels of health literacy.
In tandem with improving the clarity of our health information, there must also be a concerted effort to create a national culture of open and empathetic dialogue around mental health. People need to feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns without fear of judgment or discrimination. This starts by equipping individuals with the knowledge and tools they need to start tough conversations, recognize warning signs and seek help when needed.
So, while Health Literacy Month may be concluding, the journey toward improving health literacy, particularly about mental health, is far from over. The well-being of our society is intimately linked to our ability to understand and act on health information.
Recent data on depression and anxiety rates only serves as a stark reminder that all we must do more to bridge the health literacy gap in the United States and ensure that people receive the information they need to improve their mental health.
A society that values and promotes health literacy is not only better equipped to address mental health issues but is also a healthier and more resilient society overall. After all, people cannot act on what they don’t understand, and improving health literacy is an essential step toward a brighter and more mentally healthy nation.
Katie Russo is the senior director of strategic business development and operations for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
[Illustration credit: kiattisak]
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