Extreme Heat Contributes to Worsening Mental Health, Especially Among Vulnerable Populations

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 30, 2021 – The extreme heat that much of thethe country is experiencing has significant impacts on mental health alongside serious physical health impacts. Some groups, including people with pre-existing mental health conditions, are especially vulnerable.

Extreme heat has been associated with a range of mental health impacts in research over many years, including increases in irritability and symptoms of depression and with an increase in suicide. It can also affect behavior, contributing to increased aggression, incidence of domestic violence, and increased use of alcohol or other substances to cope with stress.

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.

“While many people are still coping with mental health challenges from the pandemic, exposure to extreme, even unprecedented, heat, can worsen psychiatric symptoms,” said APA President Vivian Pender, M.D. “APA believes the impacts of climate change, such as these extreme heat waves, pose a threat to public health, including mental health.”

Several factors contribute to people with mental illness being especially vulnerable. People with schizophrenia can experience difficulties with body temperature regulation and changes in temperature can change symptoms of mood disorders. Some psychiatric medications, including some antidepressants and antipsychotics, can affect the way the body regulates temperature.

People with mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty or to have co-occurring chronic illness or substance use disorders, which make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes. Those who are also homeless have the added burden of seeking safe shelter. In addition, people with pre-existing psychiatric symptoms are at increased risk of emergency department visits for heat-related health issues and people with dementia are at increased risk for hospitalization and death during heat waves.

“We encourage everyone to take precautions and to check on those who may be more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “Health care professionals and community leaders must ensure that mental health is a key part of preparing for and responding to the increasingly common extreme weather events we’re facing.”

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American Psychiatric Association

The American Psychiatric Association, founded in 1844, is the oldest medical association in the country. The APA is also the largest psychiatric association in the world with more than 37,400 physician members specializing in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and research of mental illnesses. APA’s vision is to ensure access to quality psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. For more information please visit www.psychiatry.org.