Background: Although the benefits of public knowledge of physical diseases are widely accepted, knowledge about mental disorders (mental health literacy) has been comparatively neglected.
Aims: To introduce the concept of mental health literacy to a wider audience, to bring together diverse research relevant to the topic and to identify gaps in the area.
Method: A narrative review within a conceptual framework.
Results: Many members of the public cannot recognise specific disorders or different types of psychological distress. They differ from mental health experts in their beliefs about the causes of mental disorders and the most effective treatments. Attitudes which hinder recognition and appropriate help-seeking are common. Much of the mental health information most readily available to the public is misleading. However, there is some evidence that mental health literacy can be improved.
Conclusions: If the public's mental health literacy is not improved, this may hinder public acceptance of evidence-based mental health care. Also, many people with common mental disorders may be denied effective self-help and may not receive appropriate support from others in the community.