Nursing students’ beliefs about etiology and manifestation of mental illness will impact on their professional attitudes in future clinical practice. The aims of the present study were to examine and compare US and Chinese undergraduate nursing students’ recognition of, and beliefs about, causes of depression and schizophrenia. A total of 310 US (n = 152) and Chinese (n = 158) nursing students completed the Australian National Mental Health Literacy Survey questionnaire between April 2016 and April 2017. Although nursing students in the USA and China were highly accurate in recognizing depression and schizophrenia, the US students were more likely to nominate multiple items alongside the correct diagnosis than the Chinese students. The Chinese students were more likely to view depression and schizophrenia as multi‐causally‐determined mental disorders than the US students. The findings highlight the need for the incorporation of mental health issues, including symptomatology of different mental disorders and their application to patient care, into various aspects of the US nursing curriculum. In China, opportunities can be created for nursing students to discuss the impact of personal beliefs on care delivery and social stigma during clinical placement.