BACKGROUND: Depression is a major public health problem in both China and Australia. To improve services, we need to ensure health professionals have an appropriate understanding of depression and its treatments. This study compares the level of awareness of depression between Chinese and Australian medical students. METHODS: The International Depression Literacy Survey assessing the public health impact, recognition and treatment of depression was completed by pre-psychiatric training medical students in China (n = 220) and Australia (n = 177). RESULTS: Chinese students were far less likely to consider mental health conditions and depression as major public health problems (P < 0.001). Depression symptom recognition was similar with four of the top five symptoms of depression the same in both groups of students. Chinese students were more likely to consider some psychological symptoms such as "thinking life is not worth living", but less likely to consider somatic features such as "sleep disturbance" as typical for people with depression. Chinese students were more likely to claim that they would seek help from mental health professionals if experiencing depression whilst Australian students were more likely to seek help from a general or family doctor. CONCLUSIONS: Chinese medical students recognise depression similarly to Australian students but do not consider it a major public health problem. These results challenge the stereotype that depression is characterised by somatic symptoms in China. Increasing awareness of the public health impact of depression should be incorporated into the medical curriculum in China.
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