People with poor reading skills are likely to be less healthy than those who read easily, according to Alisa Lincoln, an associate professor of Sociology and Health Sciences at Northeastern University. A concept new to many members of the healthcare community, there remains a significant amount of confusion surrounding it and its connection with healthcare outcomes and scant research is available on the impact of limited literacy on mental health.
Lincoln, the interim director of Northeastern’s Institute for Urban Health Research, hopes to change that. She recently received a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to explore the connection between literacy and mental health.
“You can’t approach this from just one discipline,” said Lincoln, for example, she said, “As a sociologist, I don’t have the skills to assess cognitive functioning. I need a neuropsychologist to do that.” Lincoln has assembled a team that comprises public-health experts, a medical anthropologist, two cognitive psychologists, a psychiatrist, two literacy specialists, and a biostatistician. “Together,” she said, “the team will be better able to establish a comprehensive analysis of the impact of limited literacy on the mental health community.”
Some people don’t seem to obtain the necessary health information because they’re not good readers. In addition to the practical parts of life that limited literacy inhibits — such as reading medication bottles or filling out forms — it may also feed into the symptoms of patients’ original conditions. “If you’re living with mental illness and struggling with limited literacy, you’re dealing with a double whammy,” Lincoln said. “It’s no wonder these folks are cut off from many societal resources.”
With the grant funding, Lincoln’s team will expand its research and continue their study the public using public mental-health services in Boston. “They’ll be participating in structured interviews that will assess their levels of reading literacy, numeracy, and aural literacy, as well as many factors related to the social context of their lives,” Lincoln explains hoping the results can bring change to the available public mental-health services.