School teachers are well-positioned to recognize mental health problems in their students and to help them seek appropriate help. Therefore, teachers need to have high levels of mental health literacy (MHL). In East Asia, however, few studies have examined MHL levels in teachers. In this study, MHL levels were investigated in Japanese teachers.

Teachers (n = 665) from 27 Japanese high schools answered a self-administered questionnaire which assessed (a) knowledge about mental health/illnesses, (b) correct recognition of specific illnesses (depression, schizophrenia and panic disorder), (c) confidence in helping students with depressive symptoms, and (d) confidence in teaching mental health knowledge to students.

The average proportion of correct answers to the knowledge questions (n = 20) was 58.1%. The proportion of those who correctly answered about the presence of a sharp increase of mental illnesses in adolescence was 51.7%. Few teachers correctly answered about the life-time prevalences of major mental illness in general (21.9%), depression (37.8%) and schizophrenia (19.8%). Depression, schizophrenia and panic disorder in vignette were correctly recognized by 54.1, 35.3 and 78.0% of teachers, respectively. Correct recognition was significantly lower in male than in female teachers. Only a small proportion of teachers had confidence in helping depressed students (19.9%) and in teaching mental health knowledge to students (11.1%).

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