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Extreme heat linked to mental health issues

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 led by Boston University’s School of Public Health has found that on extremely hot summer days, U.S. adults have an increased risk of visiting emergency rooms for mental health issues related to childhood-onset behavioral disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, stress, and mood disorders.

The researchers analyzed approximately 3.5 million visits to emergency rooms among 2.2 million adults during the warm season (May to September) from 2010 to 2019. They found that days of extreme heat were most strongly linked to ER visits for a large variety of mental disturbances. The impact of heat on mental health was similar across age groups, and evident in both genders and all regions of the country.

“These results show that heat can profoundly impact the mental health of people regardless of age, sex, or where they live,” says study senior author Dr. Gregory Wellenius, a professor of Environmental Health at Boston University (BU). “On days of extreme heat, it is important that we each take the precautions necessary to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.”

Dr. Wellenius and his colleagues found that the impact of heat was slightly higher in the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest. According to study lead author Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of Environmental Health at BU, the population in these areas are suffering more from heat because they are not as used to high temperatures as those living in the south. 

“They don’t necessarily have the skills or resources in place to cope during times of extreme heat. Heat events will become even more extreme as the climate continues to warm, so it’s doubly important to identify the populations that are most vulnerable and to help them adapt to warmer summertime conditions.”

The researchers argue that, when heat waves are forecasted, clinicians and public health experts could use these findings to prepare for spikes in mental health issues, especially in patients with already existing mental health conditions.

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 community members, including the uninsured, low-income, or racial and ethnic minorities. Moreover, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health should also be taken into account.

“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. The mental healthcare system should plan accordingly,” Dr. Nori-Sarma concluded.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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