Mental Health Literacy: a critical step on the path to health

Mental Health Literacy: a critical step on the path to health

Howard Center leads the way to public and personal health

Public health initiatives have long been used to encourage healthy behaviors, raise awareness of the causes and effects of illnesses, and prompt people to recognize symptoms and seek treatment. Most of the well-known public health initiatives of recent decades have focused on physical health and now organizations like Howard Center are utilizing some of the same proven public awareness approaches to improve the mental wellbeing of Vermonters.

The national effort to reduce smoking may be the best example of the power of public awareness to promote better health. In 1970, nearly 40% of American adults were cigarette smokers and smoking was so common that even non-smokers found it nearly impossible to avoid exposure to dangerous second-hand smoke.

Thanks to a years-long effort that included public service announcements, warning labels on packaging, and other initiatives that educated Americans about the harm caused by smoking, today only about 14% of adults are smokers. The CDC estimates that since 1990, more than 1.3 million cancer deaths have been avoided because of decreases in smoking rates.

Howard Center is aiming for similarly transformative long-term results by raising awareness and knowledge about mental health, developmental, and substance use issues and the availability of treatment and other services here in Vermont. Using social media, publications, education, and outreach, Howard Center is providing information that enables Vermonters to recognize when they or a loved one needs help, and ensures that they know how to get it.

In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health initiatives with accurate and effective communications, can make a difference between life and death. Providing people with information about social distancing and other ways to prevent infection is critical. Also important is helping people understand the potentially serious emotional and mental health effects of the pandemic. A recent tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45 percent of Americans said that the pandemic has affected their mental health, with 19 percent saying it has had a ‘major impact’. Similar mental health impacts were seen in affected areas following the 2003 SARS epidemic including in Hong Kong where a significant increase in suicide deaths corresponded with the epidemic.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause for Americans between 10 and 34 years old. Tragically, the suicide rate in Vermont in recent years has been much higher than the national rate, yet few of us know the risk factors associated with suicide.

This is why Howard Center produced Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan, a free informative resource guide that explains the risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide, including information on how to respond and where to get help. It also has information on reducing risk and providing more protective factors. Over the last three years Howard Center has distributed more than 20,000 copies through schools, doctors’ offices, businesses and at community events across the entire state of Vermont.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells us that about twenty percent of US adults experience mental illness every year, with anxiety and depression being most common. Yet only 43 percent of adults with mental illness seek treatment and the average delay between symptom onset and treatment is a staggering 11 years. Even among adults with serious mental illness, only about 64 percent get treatment.

To explain the low numbers of people seeking care, researchers point to a lack of mental health literacy which they define as “knowledge and recognition of mental health disorders as well as knowing where and how to get help.” So while some people are impeded in their ability to recognize a need for help as a result of the illness they are experiencing, more often the failure to recognize the symptoms of mental illness is the result of limited knowledge.

Adding to the problem of poor symptom recognition is the widely held belief that mental illness can be overcome through personal will. Studies have shown that when adults struggle, a lack of knowledge contributes to a tendency to delay engaging treatment. Howard Center’s range of publications, social media outreach, and paid media placements encourage Vermonters to learn to recognize when they are struggling and to know that treatment and support is available all across the state at your local Vermont Care Partners member agency. As Howard Center’s tag line says, “Help is here.”

People who have lived experience and their family members often want more detailed and specific information than can be provided through publications and media. For those who seek opportunities to ask questions of clinicians and other experts, Howard Center offers free and open to the public community education events including lectures, films, and panel presentations on timely topics like school violence, vaping, depression, and what is known and not known about the effects of Cannabidiol (CBD). These free events always include opportunities for questions, discussion, and sharing of experiences.

Additionally, Howard Center’s annual conference brings national and international experts and thought leaders to Vermont for the benefit of clinicians, care professionals, legislators, law enforcement, the judiciary, and others who work in mental health, developmental services, and substance use treatment or who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of these topics. Presenters have included a mix of scientists and clinical experts along with people with lived experience and their supporters.

Our 2021 annual conference Perspectives on Connection, Compassion, and Belonging will feature speakers Eve Ensler, Dr. Laurie Santos, and more on March 30, 2021 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Burlington. Registration will open in late 2020 at

According to the World Health Organization, health literacy is a stronger predictor of health than education, employment status, income, or ethnic/racial group. Improving Vermonters’ mental health literacy may similarly positively impact mental health outcomes by influencing more people to seek help when they need it and by changing attitudes toward mental illness that result in less stigma and bias toward people experiencing mental illness.

ABOUT HOWARD CENTER: Howard Center has a long and rich history as a trusted provider in the community. With a legacy spanning more than 150 years, we have been providing progressive, compassionate, high-quality care and supports to those in need. Today, we offer an array of mental health, substance use, and developmental services across the lifespan.  As Vermont’s largest social service organization, our 1,600 staff help more than 16,000 people each year in over 60 locations throughout Vermont in collaboration with hundreds of community partners. Howard Center’s 24/7/365 crisis service, First Call for Chittenden County, is available to meet the needs of Chittenden County children, adults, and families in crisis by calling 802-488-7777. Howard Center has been designated as a Center of Excellence by Vermont Care Partners and is a funded agency of United Way of Northwest Vermont. Help is here.

Howard Center, the recipient of the 2019 Excellence in Addictions Treatment Award from the National Council for Behavioral Health, is a regional and national leader in mental health and substance use treatment, most recently known for the creation of the hub and spoke model for opioid treatment and committed to improving access to quality care that is inclusive and available for all community members.

This series is a collaboration produced by members of the Vermont Care Partners. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability support. To find an agency near you visit