Background Early detection and treatment of mental disorders in adolescents and young adults can lead to better health outcomes. Mental health literacy is a key to early recognition and help seeking. Whilst a number of population health initiatives have attempted to improve mental health literacy, none to date have specifically targeted young people nor have they applied the rigorous standards of population health models now accepted as best practice in other health areas. This paper describes the outcomes from the application of a health promotion model to the development, implementation and evaluation of a community awareness campaign designed to improve mental health literacy and early help seeking amongst young people. Method The Compass Strategy was implemented in the western metropolitan Melbourne and Barwon regions of Victoria, Australia. The Precede-Proceed Model guided the population assessment, campaign strategy development and evaluation. The campaign included the use of multimedia, a website, and an information telephone service. Multiple levels of evaluation were conducted. This included a cross-sectional telephone survey of mental health literacy undertaken before and after 14 months of the campaign using a quasi-experimental design. Randomly selected independent samples of 600 young people aged 12–25 years from the experimental region and another 600 from a comparison region were interviewed at each time point. A series of binary logistic regression analyses were used to measure the association between a range of campaign outcome variables and the predictor variables of region and time. Results The program was judged to have an impact on the following variables, as indicated by significant region-by-time interaction effects (p < 0.05): awareness of mental health campaigns, self-identified depression, help for depression sought in the previous year, correct estimate of prevalence of mental health problems, increased awareness of suicide risk, and a reduction in perceived barriers to help seeking. These effects may be underestimated because media distribution error resulted in a small amount of print material "leaking" into the comparison region. Conclusion We believe this is the first study to apply the rigorous standards of a health promotion model including the use of a control region to a mental health population intervention. The program achieved many of its aims despite the relatively short duration and moderate intensity of the campaign.