Background: The mental health of the Italian population declined at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, nationwide population prevalence estimates may not effectively reproduce the heterogeneity in distress responses to the pandemic. In particular, contextual determinants specific to COVID-19 pandemic need to be considered. We thus aimed to explore the association between local COVID-19 mortality rates and mental health response among the general population. Methods: We capitalised on data (N = 17,628) from a large, cross-sectional, national survey, the COMET study, run between March and May 2020. While psychological distress was measured by General Health Questionnaire-12 (GHQ-12), the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale-21 Items (DASS-21) was used to assess relevant domains. In addition, a Covid-19 mortality ratio was built to compare single regional mortality rates to the national estimate and official statistics were used to control for other area-level determinants. Results: Adjusted ordered regression analyses showed an association between mortality ratio and moderate (OR = 1.10, 95%CI 1.03-1.18) and severe (OR = 1.11, 95%CI 1.03-1.21) DASS-21 anxiety levels. No effects of mortality ratio on GHQ-12 scores and DASS-21 depression and stress levels, uniformly high across the country, were estimated. Conclusions: Although we could not find any association between regional COVID-19 mortality ratio and depression or psychological distress, anxiety levels were significantly increased among subjects from areas with the highest mortality rates. Local mortality rate seems a meaningful driver for anxiety among the general population. Considering the potentially long-lasting scenario, local public health authorities should provide neighbouring communities with preventive interventions reducing psychological isolation and anxiety levels.
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