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Insights on Treating Depression

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4 Ways to Address Mental Health Literacy in Patients With Depression

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Mental health literacy refers to one’s knowledge and beliefs about mental health disorders. It impacts patients’ ability to recognize mental health disorders, such as depression, and seek treatment when needed. Actively working to improve mental health literacy in patients with depression may reduce the stigma of mental illness and improve patient outcomes. Here are some tips for doctors and other health care providers for addressing mental health literacy in this patient group.

1. Communicate clearly and effectively about depression. 

As a health care provider, you play an enormous role in educating patients about the diagnosis of depression, including topics such as:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • Treatment options
  • Side effects of treatment
  • Length of treatment
  • Importance of adherence to treatment and follow-up appointments

During these discussions, be sure to use simple language and avoid overly complicated medical terms. Tailor your explanations to each individual case as much as possible. Help patients recognize that even though depression is a mental illness, it can be successfully treated with evidence-based therapies. Set their expectations so they don’t give up if the first treatment method they try doesn’t provide desired results. Assure them that you are with them every step of the way.  

2. Assess patients’ level of understanding about depression.

Don’t assume your patients are able to absorb all of the information you’ve shared. Ask open-ended questions to gauge their understanding. For example, instead of asking, “Do you understand how your antidepressant works?”, you could ask, “Can you explain to me in your own words how your medication helps your depression?” Repeat or rephrase your teaching as necessary.

3. Provide resources about depression in multiple formats. 

In addition to verbal communication, patients can benefit from access to other educational materials, such as  pamphlets, graphics, videos, and trusted websites or apps. Suggest content that is engaging and patient-friendly. These additional sources of information can reinforce what’s covered during appointments and provide additional patient education opportunities outside of the office setting. 

4. Promote patient empowerment. 

Though knowledge is a big part of mental health literacy, attitudes and beliefs about mental illness are just as important. Remind your patients that depression is not a character flaw; it is an illness. Instead of focusing on what’s going wrong, ask your patients about things they are proud of or positive effects of treatment. Encourage your patients to join support groups or connect with others who are going through a similar experience. Emphasize the importance of always seeking help when needed.

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  1. Mental Health Literacy Measures Evaluating Knowledge, Attitudes and Help-Seeking: A Scoping Review. BMC Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4650294/
  2. Bridging the Communication Gap Between Physicians and Their Patients With Physical Symptoms of Depression. The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC486943/
  3. Mental Health Literacy. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4813415/
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.