Increase Your Mental Health Literacy about Anxiety

Learn how to prevent, recognize, and manage mental health problems.

E+/stuartbur/Getty Images.

The term health literacy refers to knowledge and beliefs about health issues; higher health literacy translates into an improved ability to prevent, recognize, and manage health problems. Mental health literacy is a related concept, referring to knowledge, beliefs and perceptions about mental disorders.

Mental health literacy is an especially important topic when it comes to problems like mood and anxiety disorders.

These two classes of disorders are amongst the most prevalent types of mental illness, and the most costly.

In the case of anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), people often delay in seeking treatment.  One study reported that while approximately 86% of individuals with GAD seek treatment at some point in their lifetime; only about one-third do so in the first year of onset.  These delays can be linked for some to poorer outcome, and in the case of young folks with anxiety, a worsening of symptoms from sub-clinical to clinical status.

Delays in seeking treatment might be attributed to (1) stigma about mental illness, (2) poor access to resources for treatment, or (3) normalization of symptoms.  Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness and their treatment is gradually improving (especially among young adults). In addition, changes to the US healthcare system are (slowly) improving access and coverage for care (See this related post for information on seeking affordable treatment.).

However, normalization of symptoms – perceiving associated features of anxiety to be less problematic than they actually are – remains a complex problem to solve.  Because anxiety is a normal emotion and a biologically adaptive physical state to experience, it is very challenging to parse out garden variety, often-helpful anxiety from its more distressing and impairing clinical counterpart.

But a study published in the Journal of Public Mental Health on mental health literacy for anxiety disorders provides good evidence that narrowing the gap in mental health literacy for GAD is necessary. In this study, fictional vignettes depicting individuals with mild/subclinical, moderate, and severe cases of GAD, social anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder were provided to 270 adults and two expert raters (who had extensive training in structured clinical interviews for anxiety disorders).

The main findings for this study were:

  • Non-experts perceived mild/subclinical and moderate cases of social anxiety disorder to be less severe than the expert raters.
  • For GAD, significant underrating of severity by non-expert participants as compared to experts occurred at all levels – mild/subclinical, moderate, and severe.
  • All severities of major depressive disorder were overrated by participants as compared to expert raters.  According to the study authors, this may mean that efforts to raise awareness about depression in the general public have been effective.

    The normalization of symptoms can manifest as denial of their seriousness or lack of knowledge about markers of severity. In either case, improving knowledge about anxiety disorders and symptom severity could help. 

    To learn more about anxiety symptoms and severity:


    Paulus DJ, Wadsworth LP, & Hayes-Skelton SA. (2015). Mental health literacy for anxiety disorders: how perceptions of symptom severity might relate to recognition of psychological distress. Journal of Public Mental Health, 14(2): 94-106.

    Spitzer RL, Kroenke K, Williams JB,  &Lowe B. (2006). A brief measure for assessing generalized anxiety disorder: the GAD-7. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(10):1092-1097.

    Wang PS, Berglund P, Olfson M, Pincus HA, Wells KB, & Kessler RC. (2005). Failure and delay in initial treatment contact after first onset of mental disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6):603–613. 

    Continue Reading