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Extreme Heat Can Take a Toll on Mental Health

  • July 20, 2023
  • Patients and Families, Public awareness

New Research Adds to the Evidence on Heat Exposure and Mental Health

In addition to the potentially serious physical health consequences, the extreme heat that much of the country is experiencing can also have significant impacts on mental health.

Heat waves and extreme heat have been associated with a range of mental health impacts in research. Extreme heat is associated with increases in irritability and symptoms of depression and with an increase in suicide. It can also affect behavior, contributing to increased aggression and incidence of domestic violence and increased substance use. Research has also linked high temperatures to problems with memory, attention and reaction time. Sleep difficulties associated with extreme heat can contribute to and further exacerbate mental health symptoms.

New research is adding to the evidence of the variety of ways heat can impact mental health. According to a recent meta-analysis published in the journal Lancet “Increasing evidence indicates that ambient outdoor temperature could affect mental health, which is especially concerning in the context of climate change.” The analysis found that outdoor temperature (including absolute temperatures, temperature variability, and heatwaves) was positively associated with attempted and completed suicides, with hospital attendance or admission for mental illness, and with worse outcomes for community mental health and wellbeing.

The authors also noted that while extreme heat can be detrimental, comfortable weather and sunshine hours can be beneficial for community mental health and well-being. They suggested that an inverted U-shaped relationship might exist between heat and general mental health where increasing temperature is beneficial up to a point before becoming harmful. They also noted that the temperature relative to the local average was more important than the specific temperature.

Vulnerable groups

Some groups, including people with pre-existing mental health conditions, are especially vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat. People with dementia are at increased risk factor for hospitalization and death during heat waves. Some psychiatric medications, including some antidepressants and antipsychotics, can affect the way a person’s body regulates temperature. People living with mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty or to have co-occurring substance use disorders, which may make it more challenging for them to cope or adapt to changes. Everyone, especially people more vulnerable to extreme heat, is encouraged to stay hydrated and take precautions in extreme heat conditions, and to check on those who may be more vulnerable to extreme heat conditions.

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