People with lower literacy have greater mental health problems, research shows


People with poor literacy experience more mental health problems worldwide, according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

A new study published today is the first to look at the global picture of literacy and mental health.

Fourteen percent of the world’s population still has little or no literacy – and the study finds that they are more likely to suffer mental health issues such as loneliness, depression and anxiety.

The team, from UEA’s Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychological Therapies (CPPT), say their findings disproportionately affect women, who make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterates.

Despite increasing literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still an estimated 773 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write. Literacy rates are lower in developing countries and those with a history of conflict, and women are disproportionately affected.

We know that people with better literacy tend to have better social outcomes in terms of things like getting a job, being well paid and being able to afford better food and housing. Not being able to read or write holds a person back throughout their life and they often become trapped in poverty or more likely to commit crime.

We also know that lower literacy is associated with poorer health, chronic disease and shorter life expectancy.

There has been research investigating the potential link between literacy and mental health, but this is the first study to look at the issue on a global scale.”

Dr Bonnie Teague from UEA’s Norwich Medical School

The team reviewed data from 19 studies that measured both literacy and mental health. These studies took place in nine different countries (USA, China, Nepal, Thailand, Iran, India, Ghana, Pakistan and Brazil) and involved nearly two million participants.

Dr Lucy Hunn completed this systematic review as part of her PhD in clinical psychology training at UEA. She said: “We used information on mental health and literacy to assess the globally reported association between these two factors.

“What we found is a significant relationship between literacy and mental health outcomes in several countries.

“People with lower literacy had greater mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

“We cannot say with certainty that poor literacy causes poor mental health, but there is a strong association.

“There can be various factors that impact mental health that also affect literacy – such as poverty or living in an area with a history of conflict. However, what the data shows is that even in these places, you still worse mental health for those without literacy skills.

“This work highlights the importance of mental health services being aware of and supporting literacy,” she added.

Literacy and mental health around the world: a systematic review is published in the journal Mental Health and Social Inclusion.


University of East Anglia