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Health literacy

What is health literacy, and how does it affect health?

Health literacy is how well a person can obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.

Health literacy has direct and indirect links with:

  • health outcomes, 
  • health care costs, 
  • engagement with services, and 
  • overall well-being.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care 2015 state that 60 percent of Australians have low individual health literacy. 

What is mental health literacy?

Mental health literacy helps people to know how to identify when they are experiencing a mental health issue and what causes these experiences. It empowers them to work both with and independently of services to improve their health.

Health literacy responsiveness

Health literacy responsiveness is the provision of services, programs, support, and information to promote equitable access and engagement for all people in the community.

As a clinician, you can put many things in place to influence your patients’ understanding of health information and the actions they take. 

What is mental health literacy responsiveness and why is it important?

A service that is responsive to mental health literacy will ensure that their service users can access information that makes sense to them. It allows them to follow the discussion without feeling lost and make informed decisions about their mental and physical health.

Mental health literacy responsive services can potentially reduce dependence on services and contribute to improving equity and health outcomes for people with lived experience of mental health issues and their families, carers, and friends. It can also help you to communicate more effectively with your patient and reduce the likelihood of your patients experiencing poorer outcomes.

People with low health literacy are less likely to ask questions even if they do not understand something. This may in turn affect how they follow your instructions or treatments. Therefore, by using a range of strategies that support a patient’s health literacy, you will be better able to provide safe and quality care.


Use these communication techniques to enhance how you work with your patient and your patients’ health literacy:

  • Keep to 3-5 key points
  • Use plain language, be specific and concrete not general
  • Be positive, helpful, empowering and talk about what patients should do, not what they shouldn’t do.
  • Draw pictures or demonstrate with models
  • Engage patients to ask questions 
  • Use ‘teach-back’ to improve client comprehension of the information 
  • Use social prescribing by linking patients with community and social services to help them to manage factors that influence their mental and physical health. 
    • GPs are encouraged to look at HealthPathways to find services suitable for your patients’ needs. 
    • You can also click here to visit our CESPHN Service guide for the latest services in the Central and Eastern Sydney Region. 
    • Headstart is a free service navigation platform that can help you to quickly find local mental health support services for your clients. 
    • Ask your patients if they need an interpreter. If you are an allied health professional working in the CESPHN region, you may be eligible to access our Access to Interpreting Services for Allied Health Professionals Program.  
Mental Health Literacy Responsiveness Framework

To know more about how you can improve your practice/organisation ‘s mental health literacy responsiveness, take a look at the Mental Health Literacy Responsiveness Framework.

The Mental Health Literacy Responsiveness Framework and its resources were developed by the Mental Health Commission New South Wales through a co-design process with people with lived experience of mental health issues, their families and carers and service providers, to help health workers and services to improve the access, experience and satisfaction of people using your services.

Accreditation and quality improvement

Quality and practice managers can also look here to understand how the 11 action areas within the Mental Health Literacy Responsiveness Framework correspond with various accreditation standards that might be relevant to your services.

Improving clients’ experience

There may be times when your patients will need to wait for a while before they can see a specialist mental health professional. Use our ‘While You Wait’ suit of resources to support your patients to actively manage their wellbeing and prepare for their first appointment.

The Service Journey Checklist can be used by general practice, allied health services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, community managed organisations providing clinical services and community health organisations, to check on how your service can better support people with lived experience of mental health issues.

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