December 1, 2008 — Alisa Lin­coln, Ph.D., M.P.H., asso­ciate pro­fessor of health sci­ences and soci­ology at North­eastern, recently com­pleted one of the first studies of its kind on the role of lit­eracy and mental health. While much atten­tion has been focused on the role of lit­eracy and health, little is known about the rela­tion­ship between lit­eracy and mental health. This study was designed to assess the lit­eracy level of people seeking treat­ment for a full range of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders with the hopes of better under­standing the rela­tion­ship between lit­eracy and mental health outcomes.

The results were pub­lished in the Journal of Ner­vous and Mental Dis­ease.

According to the National Insti­tutes of Health, an esti­mated 26.2 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ages 18 and older — about one in four adultssuffer from a diag­nos­able mental dis­order in a given year. In addi­tion, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans lack the lit­eracy pro­fi­ciency nec­es­sary to under­stand and act on health infor­ma­tion from health care providers.

Although mental health issues and lim­ited lit­eracy are very common in the United States, there is little infor­ma­tion about how one impacts the other,” said Lincoln.

Lit­eracy impacts health out­comes, and lim­ited lit­eracy cre­ates unique chal­lenges in mental health treat­ment. Cur­rent stan­dard psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tions do not include a lit­eracy assess­ment, and many treat­ment methods assume a cer­tain level of lit­eracy, cre­ating bar­riers to pos­i­tive health out­comes for patients with a psy­chi­atric diagnosis.

Pro­fessor Lin­coln and her col­leagues con­ducted this study in an urban public health clinic with patients diag­nosed with a wide range of psy­chi­atric diag­noses, including depres­sion, bipolar dis­order, anx­iety, sub­stance abuse, atten­tion deficit hyper­ac­tivity dis­order and schizophrenia.

Most of the cur­rent infor­ma­tion about mental health and lit­eracy focuses only on depres­sion,” said Lin­coln. “We wanted to expand on that and look at other diag­noses to examine how lit­eracy levels vary among dif­ferent diagnoses.”

This study was done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dr. Peggy Johnson, Vice Chair of Clin­ical Psy­chi­atry at Boston Med­ical Center.

The data col­lected showed that a com­pli­cated rela­tion­ship exists between lit­eracy and the afore­men­tioned psy­chi­atric diag­noses. There exists a cor­re­la­tion between lim­ited lit­eracy in some diag­noses, but it was not consistent.

In order to develop effec­tive psy­chi­atric treat­ments that result in better out­comes, we need to increase our under­standing of the rela­tion­ships that exist between psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders – on all levels – and health lit­eracy,” added Lin­coln. “It is impor­tant for clin­i­cians to take lit­eracy levels into con­sid­er­a­tion when devel­oping treat­ment plans for their patients.”

For more infor­ma­tion about Pro­fessor Lincoln’s research, please visit http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​b​o​u​v​e​/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​l​i​n​c​o​l​n​_​a​.​h​tml or con­tact Jenny Eriksen at (617) 373‑2802 or via email at j.​eriksen@​neu.​edu.