Untangling the association between COVID-19 health literacy, trust in the pandemic response, and mental distress, during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland: a repeated cross-sectional study

Lancet. 2023 Nov:402 Suppl 1:S23. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(23)02120-7.


Background: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rates of mental distress is well described. However, the contribution of poor health literacy and low levels of trust in state institutions to mental distress is less well defined. This study aimed to assess the impact of COVID-19 health literacy and trust in the pandemic response (Trust) on mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland.

Methods: We did this nationally representative cross-sectional survey of adult Irish residents during three study periods: from May 26 to June 17, 2020 (n=947); from July 1 to July 23, 2020 (n=995); and from Sept 5 to Sept 28, 2020 (n=972). Participants were contacted using random-digit-dialling and interviewed by a professional market research organisation (Ipsos MRBI' about 80% via mobile phone, 20% via landline). Mental distress was assessed by the Patient Health Questionnaire Anxiety Depression Scale (PHQ-ADS), for which a score of 10 or higher indicated mental distress. Heath literacy and trust were each assessed with three questions, which defined three categories: low, moderate, and high (appendix). Descriptive analysis and multivariate (MVA) Poisson regression were conducted in STATA17, Incidence Rate Ratios (IRR) are reported.

Findings: 2914 participants completed the survey across three study periods (median age 46 years, 1510 [51·8%] women, 1401 [48·1%] men, three [0·1%] non-binary). 804 (27·6%) of 2914 participants experienced mental distress (n=804). More women experienced mental distress than men (508 [34%] of women vs 294 [21%] of men). Mental distress was inversely associated with age (from 43% in those aged <30 years [n=232/539] to 19% in those aged >70 years [n=66/349]). Most participants had high health literacy (n=2,530, 86·8%). While health literacy was positively and significantly associated with trust, it was not associated with mental distress and it was therefore excluded from the MVA. Level of trust was captured for 2693 adults; 42·2% participants reported low trust (n=457) or moderate trust (n=679). The prevalence of mental distress was inversely associated with trust; increasing from 24% in those with high trust (n=374/1557), 30% in those with moderate trust (n=202/679), to 36% in those with low trust (n=166/457). In MVA higher rates of mental distress were associated with low trust (IRR 1·45, 95% CI 1·20-1·75; p=0·000) and moderate trust (IRR 1·24, 1·04-1·47, p=0·016) compared with high trust when adjusted for age, sex, employment status, and income,.

Interpretation: In Ireland, low levels of trust in the COVID-19 pandemic response were associated with higher levels of mental distress. Although poor health literacy was associated with low levels of trust, it was not independently associated with mental distress. Inference on the nature and direction of causal effects must be cautious given the cross-sectional study design.

Funding: Health Research Board.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression
  • Female
  • Health Literacy*
  • Humans
  • Ireland / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics
  • Trust