As we enter the Health First Era (see http://www.behavioral.net/blogs/ron-manderscheid/personal-and-social-wellbeing-are-foundation-our-health-first-era), all of us will need to improve our personal health literacy. Although this term is used very infrequently in behavioral health, it is, nevertheless, exceptionally important. Health literacy refers to our own personal understanding of actions we can take to promote our own good health, prevent personal disease, and mitigate personal illness.
Many persons who have the lived experience of a mental or substance use condition develop personal health literacy by a process of trial and error. They come to understand those factors and behaviors that can trigger an episode of illness; they also come to understand those actions they can take to disarm these triggers. Examples of the latter may include a longer period of sleep each day, a particular diet, a daily or weekly exercise regimen, contact with a particular friend, or other actions. We now call this personal understanding “health activation.” Health activation is one very important way that we can implement health literacy in our own lives.
Much of what has been learned from peers about health activation in the past two decades has contributed to our fast-growing knowledge about promoting wellness for those who are ill. An urgent need exists to compile this information so that it can be made available to all persons with lived experience, to peers who work in behavioral health and integrated care settings, and to formal providers who work in our care systems. Broad availability of this critical information would represent a very large step toward improving health literacy for all who are affiliated with care delivery in the behavioral health field.
But what about health literacy for those who are not ill? For this very large population, we must take other actions. We must come to know those thoughts and actions that will be necessary to increase personal and social wellbeing so that one can remain healthy and not become ill. What should one do to promote good physical health, good mental health, and good social health? Since the advent of Healthy People 2020 and the Affordable Care Act, answers to these questions actually have become feasible. Findings from available work must be summarized. If an area is underdeveloped, advocacy will be needed to promote additional work. As very practical knowledge is developed, we will need to synthesize what has been learned and to disseminate that information. This information will be extremely valuable to improve everyone’s health literacy.
For the most part, our efforts to promote personal health literacy will focus on how people can learn to improve personal resiliency. In turn, improving personal resiliency will depend upon how effectively one approaches one’s physical health, mental health, and social health. This agenda is quite exciting, yet it also is so broad and so underdeveloped at present that a bold new approach will be required to bring it to fruition.