Heat waves are dangerous—they can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death for vulnerable people who may have a harder time staying cool. Now, new evidence points to heat waves significantly impacting mental health as well.
A new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that, on very hot days, emergency department check-ins for mental health reasons increased by 8%. Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health analyzed about 3.5 million emergency department visits for more than 2 million people throughout the U.S. from 2010 to 2019.
“As we approach the upcoming summer season, it is important to keep in mind that the combination of stressors—pandemic and climate—might exacerbate existing mental health conditions,” study lead author Amruta Nori-Sarma, assistant professor of environmental health at BUSPH said in a press release. “The mental healthcare system should plan accordingly.”
Researchers think that mental health for already struggling people could be made worse by heat waves because the extreme temperatures can disrupt sleep and increase discomfort during the daytime. The study even suggests that existential dread over global warming may play a role: “Another biological pathway may be the increase in hopelessness, maladaptive anxiety, and stress attributable to the anticipation of climate change and associated extreme events.”
People in areas that aren’t as adapted to heat (and where people are less likely to own air conditioners) in regions of the U.S. like the Northeast, Northwest, and Midwest showed higher rates of mental health emergency department visits during heat waves, the study found.
The researchers suggest that public health officials should focus on mental health interventions alongside planning for physical health emergencies caused by heat. “When heat waves are forecasted, clinicians and public health experts may use our findings to prepare especially for outreach to patients with existing mental health conditions,” Nori-Sarma said.
Heat waves are becoming more frequent. A recent study found that 80% of Americans suffered extreme heat during 2021. Extreme heat could eventually cause more deaths than all infectious diseases combined, so finding ways to protect the vulnerable and mitigate dangerous blackouts must be a priority, along with slashing the greenhouse gas emissions leading to all this heat in the first place.
More: What Causes a Heat Wave?