While the impact of heat on physical health is well documented, few studies have examined the impact of extreme heat on mental health. New research from Boston University School of Public Health found that on extremely hot summer days, American adults have an increased risk of visiting the emergency room for mental health issues related to childhood behavioral disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, stress and mood disorders.
The researchers analyzed about 3.5 million emergency room visits among 2.2 million adults during the hot season (May to September) from 2010 to 2019. They found that days of extreme heat were most strongly linked to emergency room visits for a wide variety of mental disorders. The impact of heat on mental health was similar across all age groups and evident in both genders and across all regions of the country.
“These results show that heat can have a profound impact on the mental health of people, regardless of their age, gender or where they live,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Gregory Wellenius, Professor Environmental Health at Boston University (BU). “On days of extreme heat, it’s important that we each take the necessary precautions to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.”
Dr. Wellenius and his colleagues found that the heat impact was slightly higher in the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest. According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at BU, people in these areas suffer more from heat because they are not as accustomed to high temperatures as those who live in the south.
“They don’t necessarily have the skills or the resources in place to deal with periods of extreme heat. Heat events will become even more extreme as the climate continues to warm, so it is doubly important to identify the most vulnerable populations and help them adapt to hotter summer conditions.
The researchers argue that when heat waves are predicted, clinicians and public health experts could use these findings to prepare for spikes in mental health problems, especially among patients already suffering from mental health problems.
Further research is needed to identify public health strategies that will help alert people to the risks posed by extreme heat and better protect the most vulnerable members of the community, including uninsured, low-income or racial and ethnic. Additionally, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health must also be considered.
“As we approach the next summer season, it is important to keep in mind that the combination of stressors – pandemic and climate – could exacerbate existing mental health problems. The mental health system should plan accordingly,” Dr. Nori-Sarma concluded.
The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
By Andrei Ionescu, Terre.com Personal editor