Language-literacy skills and mental health service provision: are we missing this foundation of mental health?

Published on
17 May 2024
The UTAS Menzies Mental Health and Wellbeing Group standing on tiered stairs outside

In an innovative move towards enhancing mental health services, Associate Professor Amanda Neil and team, supported by the Royal Hobart Hospital Research Foundation, are undertaking a crucial study on language-literacy skills of patients within mental health care settings. This year-long project, which commenced in April 2024, seeks to unravel to what extent, where and for whom language-literacy skills are being considered in Tasmanian mental health service provision.

These are key questions as low language-literacy skills are linked with poor mental health and may increase health inequalities. Health inequalities are differences in health status, and things that determine health status, such as access to care and differences in opportunities to lead healthy lives, such as through employment and housing. Low language-literacy skills can also directly influence patients' understanding of, and ability to engage with and benefit from, care.

For their project, the research team is conducting a comprehensive audit of mental health service records from 2022-23, analysing how often language-literacy skills are documented by staff for new patients. They will find out whether children, youths and adults are having their language-literacy needs assessed, whether these assessments are occurring in community care and/or inpatient care, and whether assessment practices vary across the state. The findings from this audit will shed light on current practices and identify potential areas for improvement to better support people with different language-literacy needs.

Preliminary insights from the team’s work suggests a widespread lack of awareness and underestimation of patients' literacy challenges. This situation can lead to miscommunication and inadequate and/or inappropriate care being provided. The project's findings will be crucial to informing strategies that help address these challenges and ensure that all patients receive care that acknowledges and accommodates their language-literacy level.

Thanks to the pioneering work of A/Prof Neil and her team, this project has the potential to help revolutionise mental health practices not only in Tasmania but potentially across Australia and the world. By establishing the need to integrate language-literacy considerations into mental health assessments, the project aims to enhance patient engagement and treatment effectiveness, making a significant contribution to the broader goals of Mental Health Awareness Week. With the invaluable support of the Royal Hobart Hospital Research Foundation, this study is a testament to the power of targeted research in driving tangible improvements in healthcare services. As this project progresses, it will stand as an example to people experiencing mental health challenges that their needs are important and that their treatment is as accessible and effective as possible.

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