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Background: Investigating variables associated with mental health literacy in the college-age population takes us one step closer to providing intervention for this vulnerable group, where growing rates of psychological disorders are a serious public concern. This study adds to the existing literature by incorporating, within a single model, multi-faceted variables (demographic, psychological, and academic) that contribute to mental health literacy in demographically and ethnically diverse college students.

Methods: Participants were undergraduate students enrolled at nine different colleges that are part of a large, urban, public university system. A total of 1213 respondents (62.0% female, 73.3% non-white) completed an in- person assessment of mental health literacy and answered questions about demographics, college experience, and mental health experience. Data were analyzed to identify which variables best discriminated between high, mid- level, and low performers on this assessment.

Results: Discriminant correspondence analysis revealed that the difference between high and low performers (accounting for 90.27% of the total variance) was driven by participants who had taken at least one course related to clinical psychology and who typically majored in psychology and applied health science fields. These participants were more likely to report being white, female, between the ages of 28–32, and in the fourth year or later of their undergraduate program. In addition, high performers were more likely to have been diagnosed and/or treated for a psychological disorder, have more experience with psychological disorders through personal, family, or peer history, and have families who are open to discussing mental health issues.

Conclusion: The main contributor to variation in mental health literacy scores was having taken a clinical psychology course, followed by majoring in psychology. Importantly, our findings identified not only the high performers, but also the low performers, for whom an increase in knowledge and awareness of mental health is crucial to overall psychological well-being. These results have important implications for the design of educational interventions aimed at improving mental health literacy at the college level, especially for students who otherwise would not have been exposed to this information from coursework or their major.


This work was originally published in BMC Public Health, available at

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