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Mental health literacy among refugee communities: differences between the Australian lay public and the Iraqi and Sudanese refugee communities

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This study investigated differences in mental health knowledge and beliefs between participants from the Iraqi and Sudanese refugee communities, and Australian-born individuals, in Sydney, Australia.


Ninety-seven participants were given vignettes of characters describing symptoms of major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress. They were required to identify psychological symptoms as disorders, rate beliefs about the causes of and helpful treatments for these disorders, and rate attitude statements regarding the two characters.


Australian participants recognized the presented symptoms as specific mental disorders significantly more than Iraqi and Sudanese participants did, and reported causal and treatment beliefs which were more congruent with expert beliefs as per the western medical model of mental disorder. The Sudanese group endorsed supernatural and religious causal beliefs regarding depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms most often; but both Sudanese and Iraqi participants strongly supported options from the supernatural and religious treatment items. However, evidence for pluralistic belief systems was also found.


Although sampling was non-random, suggesting caution in the interpretation of results, it appears that the mental health literacy of lay Australians may be more aligned with the western medical model of mental disorder than that of Iraqi and Sudanese refugee communities. Mental health literacy support needs of Iraqi and Sudanese refugee communities resettled in western countries such as Australia might include education about specific symptoms and causes of mental disorder and the effectiveness of psychiatric treatments. These findings provide useful directions for the promotion of optimal service utilization among such communities.

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Samantha May.



Depression vignette

Jenny has been feeling very sad and low for 3 months. She used to take part in community activities, and enjoyed socializing with friends and family members, but now she has no interest in doing these things. She has trouble sleeping most nights, and she is finding it difficult to concentrate on her work. She feels tired most of the time, and feels guilty about not doing her work. She does not feel like eating, and has lost a lot of weight. Sometimes she wishes that she were dead.

Posttraumatic stress vignette

Steve was attacked when strangers broke into his house. He could not do anything to stop them, because he thought they would kill him. He does not want to talk about it to anyone, because he does not want to remember what happened, but sometimes he has nightmares about it. He has trouble sleeping, and sometimes he gets angry or frightened very quickly for no reason. He has been feeling like this for months, and is finding it difficult to be around friends and family, or to do his work.

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May, S., Rapee, R.M., Coello, M. et al. Mental health literacy among refugee communities: differences between the Australian lay public and the Iraqi and Sudanese refugee communities. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 49, 757–769 (2014).

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